was re-discovered thanks to the acquisitive nature of an Austrian
general, Prince d'Elboeuf. Quite why he was there is one of those
strange stories of European politics. Suffice it to say that Austria
had gained sovereignty over that part of southern Italy centred on
Naples. And so, in 1707, it became Prince d'Elboeuf's not unpleasant
duty to take command of the local cavalry unit. He bought an estate and
built a villa in nearby Portici.
the years relics of Roman times had been occasionally recovered from
the surrounding fields. However, in 1709, the digging of a well in the
orchard of a neighbouring Franciscan monastery brought to light some
exceptional finds. Hearing of this, the prince purchased the land and
proceeded to tunnel out from the bottom of the well.
It quickly became
clear that he was excavating the site of an ancient marble building.
Soon dozens of statues, marble plaques, columns, inscriptions and
bronzes were unearthed.
Once the building had been stripped of
its finery, interest in the site diminished. It wasn't until 1738 that
excavations restarted, this time under Spanish control (don't ask!).
The excavations were led by Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre under the auspices of Charles III of Naples.
The precise location of Herculaneum had been lost in antiquity - the outflow from Vesuvius had completely engulfed the town and reshaped the surrounding coastline.
On December 11, 1738, however, an inscription came to light that identified d'Elboeuf's building. The inscription read Theatrum Herculanensi. They had re-discovered Herculaneum. It was about 7km southwest of Vesuvius, hidden from the world by 17m of rock beneath the town of Resina.
excavations continued with renewed enthusiasm, causing irreparable
damage to the Roman remains. Tunnels were dug randomly; whole building
were ransacked; frescoes were cut from walls; locations of artifacts
were left unrecorded.
Alcubierre, who was in charge until 1765, was later described as 'knowing as much of antiquities as the moon does of lobsters' by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German antiquarian later to be called the father of archeology.
However, Winckelmann's charge is not strictly accurate or fair. Alcubierre had the wisdom to make Karl Weber, a Swiss officer, his assistant. In time a semblance of order was imposed, due mainly to the efforts of Weber.
He mapped all the tunnels and the buildings they led to, and logged
details of the finds. This methodology is clear on his plan of the Villa of the Papyri (see right).
Since the publication of that teams notes in the late 19th century, some archeologists now consider Weber, not Wincklemann, to be the true father of archeology.
Although the excavation techniques were crude, many magnificent items were recovered from the excavations under Weber's supervision. Many of these were in much better condition than those uncovered in nearby Pompeii due to the manner of burial. The statuary, for example, both bronze and marble in many cases survived virtually unscathed.
bronze head, opposite, was unearthed in 1754 and was initially thought
to be of the Roman philosopher and writer Seneca, although this now
Weber's work was continued by his successor, Francesco La Vega.
Between them they produced as complete a plan as was possible at that
time. Interest gradually moved to the neighbouring site of Pompeii, which proved to be an easier site to plunder. It
wasn't until 1828 that excavations restarted in Herculaneum, this time
using the open trench system that was proving so successful in Pompeii.Only a few remains were unearthed and excavation was halted after a period of seven years.
In 1869 excavations were again restarted, this time under the control of Guiseppe Fiorelli, who, due mainly to his work in Pompeii,
became one of the 'greats' of Italian archeology. This period of
excavation only lasted six years and failed to produce any significant
The excavations were finally reopened in 1927 by Amedeo Maiuri.
This time, excavations were worked methodically from the surface down,
leaving as much as possible in-situ.
What became clear was that
Herculaneum was different from Pompeii, certainly far less commercial, perhaps more relaxed.
1982 a remarkable discovery contradicted earlier claims that the
eruption caused few casualties in the town. In stone boathouses, which
lined the ancient shoreline, excavators unearthed dozens of skeletons struck down where they lay, sheltering from the onslaught of ashes, mud and rock.
Only a section (that nearest the waterfront) of Herculaneum has been fully excavated so far.
photograph (left) shows the extent of the open excavations (the curving
road on the right is an access road to the site). What still lies
underneath Resina, renamed Ercolano in the late 1970s, can only be
At some time in the future excavations will regain momentum, but preservation of existing discoveries is no less important.
Neglect, or Vesuvius, may yet be the final ruination of the city ofHerculaneum.