From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
It is most famous for having been destroyed, along with Pompeii, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius beginning on August 24, AD 79, which buried them in superheated pyroclastic material that has solidified into volcanic tuff. 150 skeletons were found near the beach, many of which showed evidence of lead poisoning because lead seeped into the syrup of cheap wine, which was stored in lead containers.
Excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. The elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum") under the patronage of the Charles III of Spain had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups.
Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology), an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In fact, it seems that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. The Greeks named the city Herculaneum. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War ("war of the allies" against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla.
After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 meters (50–60 feet) of mud and ash. It lay hidden and nearly intact for more than 1600 years until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709. From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete. Today, the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of Herculaneum. Until 1969 the town of Ercolano was called Resina, and it changed its name to Ercolano, the Italian modernization of the ancient name in honour of the old city.
The inhabitants worshipped above all Hercules, who was believed to be the founder of both the town and Mount Vesuvius. Other important deities worshiped include Venus, who was believed to be Hercules' lover, and Apollo.
Excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. The elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum")] under the patronage of the King of the Two Sicilies had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered, which was significantly easier to excavate due to the reduced amount of debris covering the site (four meters as opposed to Herculaneum's twenty meters). In the twentieth century, excavation once again resumed in the town. However, many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.
The pyroclastic flow instantly killed all residents who had not escaped before it struck. In contrast to Pompeii, the remains of those killed at Herculaneum were not preserved in plaster casts.
In 1981, Italian public works employees, under the direction of Dr. Giuseppe Maggi, found bones at the Herculanium site while digging a drainage trench. Italian officials, at Dr. Maggi's urging, called in Sara C. Bisel, a physical anthropologist from the United States, to oversee the excavation and study the bones. This research was funded with a grant from the National Geographic Society.
Until this discovery, there were few Roman skeletal remains available for academic study, as Ancient Romans regularly practiced cremation. Excavations in the port area of Herculaneum initially turned up more than 55 skeletons: 30 adult males, 13 adult females and 12 children. The skeletons were found on the seafront, where it is believed they had fled in an attempt to escape the volcanic eruption. This group includes the 'Ring Lady' (image at right, by National Geographic photographer Lou Mazzatenta), named for the rings on her fingers.
Through the chemical analysis of those remains, Dr. Bisel was able to gain greater insight into the health and nutrition of the Herculaneum population. Quantities of lead were found in some of the skeletons, which led to speculation of lead poisoning. The physical examination of the bones yielded additional information. The presence of scarring on the pelvis, for instance, gave some indication of the number of children a woman had borne.
Villa of the Papyri
The most famous of the luxurious villas at Herculaneum is the "Villa of the Papyri" was once identified as the magnificent seafront retreat for Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law. However, today it has clearly emerged that the objects thought to be associated with Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius correspond more closely to a greatly standardized assemblage, and cannot indicate, with certainty, a owner of the villa. The villa stretches down towards the sea in four terraces. Piso, a literate man who patronized poets and philosophers, built there a fine library, the only one to survive intact from antiquity. Scrolls from the villa are stored at the National Library, Naples. The scrolls are badly carbonized, but a large number have been unrolled, with varying degrees of success. Computer-enhanced multi-spectral imaging, in the infra-red range, helps make the ink legible. There is now a real prospect that it will be possible to read the unopened scrolls using X-rays. The same techniques could be applied to the scrolls waiting to be discovered in the as-yet unexcavated part of the villa, removing the need for potentially damaging the unrolled scrolls.
A team spent a month in summer 2009, making numerous X-ray scans of two of the scrolls that are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. They hoped that computer processing would convert the scans into digital images showing the interiors of the scrolls and revealing the ancient writing. The main fear, however, was that the Roman writers might have used carbon-based inks, which would be essentially invisible to the scans. That fear has turned out to be fact. They now hope that re-scanning the scrolls with more powerful X-ray equipment will reveal the text.