12 May 2010

Disasters: Pompeii and Herculaneum

By Michelle Styles

August 24, 79 AD, and despite a few earth tremors, all was quiet and peaceful in one of the most popular and fertile regions of the Roman Empire. Due to the light soil rich in phosphorous and alkalis and the wonderful climate, the entire area of Vesuvius was considered to be a gigantic vineyard. Back in 19 AD, Strabo had written about the volcano, he also assumed that it had died having consumed all the inflammable material that fed it.

The population of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae was totally unprepared for the events that were about to unfold. Yes, they knew about the terrible earthquake in 62 AD, and perhaps some people had left the region. The Roman government had provided generous subsidises and they were rebuilding. The area continued to be popular with the elite.

The first they knew was a terrific thunderclap and a cloud of smoke and flames burst from the mountain. The entire area was covered in an eerie darkness. As Diones Cassio said, "People believed...the world was plunged once again into chaos, to be consumed by fire."

Pliny the Younger who was staying on the Bay of Naples watched the eruption and described it so accurately that such eruptions are now known as Plinian. These are violent eruptions with tons of lava pouring out along with vast quanitites of pumice and ash. All of this is accompanied by pyroclatstic material and mud flows.

The raining down of pumice and ash is what did for Pompeii which is 15 km from Vesuvius. Some people escaped but most were trapped. When the smoke cleared, the town had been covered in six metres of ash and pumice. It also meant the various bodies of people and animals who were trapped were preserved in a special way as the ash formed around the body. When excavating, the archaeologists were able to make highly evocative plaster casts.

Herculaneum on the other hand was only 7km from the volcano and became engulfed in pyroclastic flow which swept through the town, basically hot mud rained down and eventually solidified into tufa rock. The town was buried under 20 metres of rock which ensured various bits of wood survived. The inhabitants were first asphyxiated and then hermetically sealed together with all their possessions within this tufa rock.

Only three bodies were discovered in the town (compared to over 500 in Pompeii), and until 1981, it was thought most of the inhabitants had managed to leave. However they began to excavate the old harbour in 1981 and the true scale of the disaster became apparent as more and more skeletons emerged. In all about 149 skeletons had been found to date, including the remains of a sailor and soldier who appeared to have been trying to organise the doomed rescue attempt when the pyroclastic wave hit the town.

After the explosion, various relief was organised by the Emperor but the towns themselves remained cloaked in their robes of rock, deemed too difficult to rebuild. Other smaller towns were built on top and Vesuvius continued to erupt.

Eventually the names of Pompeii and Herculaneum were a distant memory. Then in 1709, Prince D'Elboeuf had a well dug and some Roman artefacts were discovered. Herculaneum was rediscovered and exploited. It was not until 1763 that Pompeii was discovered again. Because of the ease of excavation, after 1763, Pompeii received most of the attention.

Excavation work continues. In Herculaneum, much remains under tufa, impossible to excavate because of the modern town 20 metres higher. The Villa of the Papyri for example was excavated in the 18th century by the use of tunnels, and then it was sealed again in 1765. Work just recommenced in 1985 and continues today. New computer techniques are making it possible to read the badly damaged papyri and giving access to ancient knowledge. To visit the area is to walk back in time and to give a window into a vanished way of life. Unfortunately though the sites are not well protected and remain open to exploitation by unscrupulous people.

Michelle Styles has written four Roman-set historical romances including THE GLADIATOR'S HONOUR and SOLD & SEDUCED. Her latest UK release is COMPROMISING MISS MILTON, an early Victorian historical romance and is out now.