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Archaeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata
UNESCO world heritage UNESCO World Heritage Emblem

General view excavations.jpg
General view of the excavations
National territory: ItalyItaly Italy
Type: Culture
Criteria : (iii), (iv), (v)
Surface: 98.05 ha
Reference No .: 829
UNESCO region : Europe and North America
History of enrollment
Enrollment: 1997  (session 21)

Herculaneum ( Italian Ercolano ) was an ancient city on the Gulf of Naples , which, like Pompeii , Stabiae and Oplontis, perished when Vesuvius erupted in the second half of 79. The modern successor settlement at the same location has been called Ercolano since 1969 .


On his way back from his tenth assignment, in which he had stolen the flocks of Geryon and slain the monster, Heracles stopped in Rome. The goddess Fauna refused to quench his thirst with sacred water intended only for women. In his anger, Heracles built a temple that was dedicated to him and in which no women were allowed to attend the ceremonies. Meanwhile, Cacus , a son of Vulcan , stole some cattle from Geryon's herd from Heracles. After searching in vain, Heracles wanted to return to Greece when he heard his cows. He followed the sound, met Cacus, dragged the thief out of his cave and killed him. According to legend, Herakles founded the city of Herculaneum on the spot where he killed Cacus. The myth is passed down from Dionysius of Halicarnassus .


Interior view of a building in Herculaneum (Casa di Nettuno e Amphitrite, house number 22)
Herculaneum, Neptune and Amphitrite, wall mosaic in house number 22
Skeletons in the boathouses
Skeleton finds from Herculaneum (close-up)

Little is known about the city in pre-Roman- oskian times. The name Herculaneum , apart from myth, suggests that it was Greek in name and origin; and in fact it appears at its earliest mention that we know by Theophrastus (314 BC), under the name of Herakleion .

The layout (a regular rectangular pattern) also suggests a Greek foundation. Herculaneum was surrounded by a wall that enclosed an area of ​​about 20 hectares and was located on the coastal road that led along the Gulf from Neapolis to Pompeii and Stabiae , the route of the later Via Domitiana .

Since 307 BC Herculaneum belonged to the Roman sphere of influence. In the alliance war (91-88 BC) it was 89 BC. Occupied by the rebels under Papius Mutilus , shortly afterwards it was conquered by a legate of Sulla without great resistance . In contrast to some neighboring cities, it was able to retain the status of a municipality . Following the Roman model, the administration of the city was in the hands of the Duumviri , two top magistrates with a term of one year.

At the time of the destruction, it had about 4,000 inhabitants. Herculaneum was therefore significantly smaller than Pompeii: a small port city in which trade did not play a major role and in which maritime trade largely bypassed. The economy was based mainly on fishing, agriculture and small crafts. The furnishings of the exposed houses indicate, however, that the inhabitants are sometimes very prosperous. Herculaneum was chosen as a summer retreat because of its natural beauty, with the magnificent view over the Bay of Naples and its pure air - which was praised by many ancient writers. Many wealthy Romans built their villas there and lived there with their slaves and craftsmen. The most famous is the Villa dei Papiri , named after the library of papyrus scrolls found there .

Vesuvius eruption

The catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 (according to a copy of Pliny the Younger's letters on August 24, but probably not until two months later) came as a complete surprise to the inhabitants of Campania. Since the volcano had been dormant for about 500 years, it was no longer even recognized as a volcano. Only Strabo pointed out similarities between Vesuvius and Etna . The earthquake in 62 was not interpreted as a harbinger of an impending eruption.

The course of the eruption is based on two letters from Pliny to the Roman historian Tacitus on the one hand, and on the other hand through the findings of the excavations as well as through geological investigations of the area (mainly carried out in recent years) and a precise analysis of the strata of the volcanic material now so well known that the course of the eruption can be traced relatively precisely.

The outbreak began around 1 p.m. The volcanic vent tore open, and ash and lapilli were carried upwards in a column of eruption that grew rapidly for miles . When the tropopause was reached , the cloud flattened out, so that Pliny aptly compared its shape to that of an umbrella pine tree. The main wind direction was towards the southeast, so that volcanic material fell mainly on Pompeii and the surrounding areas. Herculaneum, west of Vesuvius, was only slightly affected in the first phase of the eruption. While the roofs of houses in Pompeii broke under the load of ashes, only a few centimeters of ash fell in Herculaneum - yet enough to let a large part of the residents flee quickly.

For a long time it was suspected that almost all residents managed to escape because only a few skeletons were found in the excavated areas. When the excavation area was extended to the ancient beach of Herculaneum in 1982, this turned out to be a mistake. Around 250 skeletons were found huddled together inside twelve boathouses. It is unclear why those who perished in the boathouses did not join the general escape. Perhaps they hoped to escape across the sea, or perhaps they thought they would be safe from ash rain and lapilli in the relatively thick vaults of the boat houses. The skeletons show an above-average frequency of abnormalities that indicate age, disability or illness. Presumably, these people were not able to escape in time with the rest of the population.

During the night the eruption column, which had risen into the stratosphere , collapsed, and the ejected material fell back onto the flank of Vesuvius. A pyroclastic current raced towards Herculaneum at a temperature of over 400 ° C and a speed of between 100 and 300 km / h. When they reached the boathouses at around 1 a.m., those who remained there died within seconds of thermal shock. However, the buildings in Herculaneum were only relatively little damaged by this first stream, as it did not carry very much material. An hour later, however, a second stream followed, carrying large quantities of material and striking the Herculaneum buildings with great force. Towards morning a third stream and in the course of the morning a fourth stream reached the city. The material of the last rivers was dense, viscous and filled the buildings up to the last corner. Herculaneum was completely buried under a volcanic layer up to 20 m thick. Upon cooling, this material solidified into a dense mass of tuff .

The good state of preservation of the Herculaneum buildings and their inventory is thanks to this process:

  1. Before the buildings were covered with ash, their inside was already filled, so the roofs did not collapse.
  2. The heat of the first pyroclastic flow carbonized (charred) organic materials on the surface and drew their water away.
  3. Herculaneum lay practically closed to air beneath the dense mass of tuff.

Discovery and excavation

Over the centuries, exact knowledge of the location of the buried Herculaneum was lost, the remains of which were partially built over in the Middle Ages by the town of Resina (which has only been called Ercolano since 1969 ). A few sculptures and inscriptions had already been found in the 16th century, but it was not until 1709 that a farmer happened upon the remains of the Herculaneum theater while digging a well. The area was bought by the Duke of Elbeuf Emmanuel Maurice, an exiled French aristocrat who was stationed in Naples as the commander of the Austrian army. In the following months he had excavations carried out by tunneling at his own expense. Among other things, nine statues were discovered during these excavations, including the so-called "Great Herculean Woman" and the two "Little Herculean Women" that Elbeuf gave to Prince Eugene in Vienna. From his estate, the statues came to the Dresden court of Elector Friedrich August II in 1736 , whose daughter Maria Amalia Christina in 1738 with the King of Naples and Sicily, Charles VII, later Charles III. of Spain , was married. The "Herkulanerinnen" are still in the Dresden sculpture collection today .

From 1738 this King Charles VII had systematic excavations carried out by soldiers and forced laborers. On December 11th, an inscription was found over the “Theatrum Herculanense”, which substantiated the assumption of the Marchese Don Marcello Venuti that the remains of a city must lie in the earth. It began in the theater and in other places first shafts to the ancient street level to sink and then advance depending on the wealth of finds narrow galleries. The excavation was carried out under the direction and supervision of the Neapolitan military. Particularly valuable pieces were placed in a wing of the royal residence in Portici , where the Museo Ercolanese was housed from 1758 .

In 1750 the Villa dei Papiri was discovered (also with the construction of a well) , which gave new momentum to the excavations. From 1750 to 1761 and 1764/65 , systematic excavations were carried out on the grounds of the villa and the so-called basilica , mainly under the direction of Karl Weber , a Swiss military engineer. Weber also drew up precise plans that make it possible today to identify the course of the excavations and sites of individual works. In 1765, the escape of gas into the tunnel forced the work to be stopped and the accesses sealed.

The work was only resumed in 1828 by Francis I of Bourbon, now for the first time in open-cast mining. The excavations under the direction of the architect Carlo Bonucci continued until 1855 on a 900 m² area acquired by the state. They were continued with the support of the Italian King Viktor Emanuel II in the years 1869 to 1875, during which the entire volcanic cover layer was removed with great effort in a small part of the excavation area. Nevertheless, only insulae II and VII could be exposed during these excavations .

Because of the considerable costs of clearing, attempts to restart the excavations failed. It was not until 1924 that the next phase of excavation began under the direction of Amedeo Maiuri , and it continues to this day with brief interruptions. A complete excavation is made more difficult by the modern development. Under Maiuri an area of ​​nine hectares had been expropriated, the further extension of the excavation area in a northerly direction comes up against the building limits of Ercolano.

From 1982 to 1988, under the direction of the American archaeologist Sara C. Bisel , the area of ​​the ancient harbor and beach in particular was excavated, and the aforementioned large number of skeletons were found in the boat houses, a find that required a precise paleopathological and paleodemographic analysis of a representative, simultaneously deceased cross-section of the population of an ancient city.

In the years 1996 to 1998 excavations in the open air were carried out in the area of ​​the Villa dei Papiri, during which previously unknown basement floors of the villa were found.


In addition to numerous private houses, some of which are well preserved (including their interiors), some public buildings and villas located at the gates of the city have also been uncovered. Roman graffiti can still be read on some houses, and charred pieces of bread, grain and eggshells have been found in kitchens.

Most of the ancient works of art unearthed in Herculaneum are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples . These include a. the frescoes found in various places and the 70 large bronze sculptures from the Villa dei Papiri , which became famous through the discovery of a unique library of charred papyrus rolls with works by ancient Greek philosophers.

At the beginning of February 1990 two masked and armed thieves gained access to the storage room of the finds. After they overpowered the six guards and tied them up in a hut, they looted more than 250 valuable artifacts - jewels, coins and numerous small bronze statuettes. Among them was the jewelry of the skeleton known as the "Ring Lady". The pieces have disappeared to this day.



in alphabetical order by authors / editors

  • Agnes Allroggen-Bedel : Archeology and Politics. Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 18th century. In: Hephaistos 14, 1996, pp. 217-252 ( online ).
  • Guillaume François Antoine de L'Hôpital: News of the underground city of Herculaneum discovered at the foot of Mount Vesuvius . From d. Franz. Transl. by Johann Peter Eberhard 1749. http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id433287632
  • Valentin Kockel : Herculaneum. In: The New Pauly. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_dnp_e1403690
  • Götz Lahusen , Edilberto Formigli : Large bronzes from the Herculaneum and Pompeii .: Statues and busts of rulers and citizens . Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms 2007, ISBN 978-3-88462-250-6
  • Amadeo Maiuri: Ercolano. I nuovi scavi (1927-1958) . 1958.
  • Josef Mühlenbrock, Dieter Richter (ed.): Buried from Vesuvius - The last hours of Herculaneum (exhibition catalog). Zabern, Mainz 2006, ISBN 3-8053-3445-1 .
  • Dieter Richter (ed.): Pompeji and Herculaneum. A travel companion (= Insel-Taschenbücher Volume 3099). Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 3-458-34799-2 .
  • Dieter Richter, Ludwig Wamser (ed.): Herculaneum as an example. Roman Bavaria and reception of antiquities in the north . Archäologische Staatssammlung, Munich 2006 (= series of publications of the Archäologische Staatssammlung, Vol. 4 [correct: 5]), ISBN 3-927806-35-8 .
  • Andrew Wallace-Hadrill : Herculaneum . Zabern, Mainz 2012.

Web links

Commons : Ercolano (Archeological site)  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 1, 44
  2. Grete Stefani: The date of the Vesuvius eruption. In: Harald Meller , Jens-Arne Dickmann (eds.): Pompeji - Nola - Herculaneum. Disasters on Vesuvius. Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2011, pp. 81–84.
  3. Pliny, Epistulae 6, 16 and 20.
  4. On the situation of the individual victims SARA C. BISEL - Human Bones at Herculaneum from the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Coordinates: 40 ° 48 ′ 22 ″  N , 14 ° 20 ′ 51 ″  E