HERCULANEUM

October 30, 2015

It’s the last week in October. That means soon there’ll be lots of ghosts and goblins walking the streets begging for sugary treats. The TV stations will replay classic vampire and zombie movies. Some intrepid epicureans will delight in eating marzipan eyeballs. We’ll all have a ghoulishly delightful time. But let me take you back to 79 AD, and tell you a true horror story that befell an unsuspecting seaside resort community.

It started out like any normal day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the Mediterranean Sea calmly lapped at the seashore, the air though was a bit humid. There had been some rumbling heard coming from a mountain in the distance, though this was not unusual for the area. There had been a devastating earthquake twenty years earlier, though this noise did not seem to concern anyone on this lovely day. Mount Vesuvius was known for making noise from time to time. The earth trembled now and then, yet no one thought too much about that either. It was just life as usual in the peaceful town of Herculaneum. But this town would soon experience a nightmare and within twenty-four hours the entire area would be buried under sixty feet of ash.HERCU LARGEHerculaneum was an up-scale seaside resort with a population of 5,000. It was a vacation playground for the rich with a reputation for a hedonistic flair. There were heated pools in the men’s communal baths; walls were brightly decorated with mosaics and frescoes that more than suggested coupling, fostering the holiday atmosphere. There were outdoor eateries on nearly every street corner and bountiful catering halls that offered the discerning wealthy visitor everything from exotic foods to a fanciful frolic between the sheets.
HERCU TUNNELThe only way into this city, now frozen in antiquity, is through a long tunnel that has been carved down through sixty feet of lava. The walls in this dark tunnel are deeply gouged from drills and chisels, and have an eerie resemblance to what could have been the claw marks of unfortunate souls trying to escape the horror of that day. There are no echoes in this darkly lit walkway. I wondered, could this volcanic travesty suck up sound? Could it swallow the frantic cries of the hysterical? The only sound I heard was the trickle of water that ran in a gutter along the edge of the steps.  SKELETONUpon leaving the tunnel I stepped out into the bright Southern Italian sunshine and walked across the bridge that would take me to the streets of the city. This would have been where the Mediterranean Sea touched the land. This was where the wealthy docked their boats and this is where the only sign of Herculaneum citizenry, 300 skeletons nearly fused together, was found.

Unfortunately this area was closed to viewing the day I visited, due to preservation work. I was only able to get a scant view into the nearest boathouse. There was but one skeleton visible. The poor wretch was sitting, poised as if frozen in a moment while perhaps conversing with a companion located further into the shelter.

Who were these 300 people huddled together at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea? Did they believe that the boathouses would be a safe place to hide? Did they believe they would be rescued? They were safe for a while. It seemed that the violent activity of Mt. Vesuvius was heading only in the direction of Pompeii, a huge metropolitan city 30 miles to the southeast of Herculaneum. The pyroclastic flow raged down the mountainside, heading straight for Pompeii, engulfed the city while it slept. Bodies were found scattered throughout the Pompeii archeological site, some hidden in corners and crevices, hoping that in the end it would all come to nothing. Few in this city escaped the rage of the volcano and there is evidence that many people suffocated in the ash before they were covered in the molten rock.

The volcano had initially erupted with such force that it is estimated that two hundred tons of rock were blown 20 miles into the air. The rocks and debris then rained down onto the surrounding area. Yet, there was no lava flow coming towards Herculaneum giving the residents time to evacuate.

Then twelve hours after that first blast, Mt. Vesuvius exploded again. This time a pyroclastic flow of lethal ash, poisonous gases and lava rushed down onto Herculaneum traveling at hurricane speed. It took only six minutes to reach the resort community. It is estimated that the crowd of 300 waiting to be rescued died within two seconds once the flow reached them. They did not suffocate as had the citizens in Pompeii. They died instantaneously. The skeletons in the boathouses were frozen in time, suspended in the last second of their lives. A thick poisonous cloud estimated to have been 900 Degrees F. engulfed them, instantly cooking their brains and evaporating their flesh.

It happened so quickly that the sleeping children did not wake up. They were forever entombed with their heads cradled on their mother’s laps or snuggled up against one another near a rock wall.

An ominous red clay surrounds the skeletons. There is no red clay common to the area and the archeologists were stumped at first. Then they realized that the discolored clay was the result of skulls exploding in the high temperature.HURCU #2As I stepped away from the boathouses and moved into the city proper I saw red poppies growing along the ruined city walls. A shiver slid across my shoulders as I watched them tremble in the slight breeze for they were the same color as the clay that surrounded the skeletons in the boathouse.HURCU WALLS #1I expected to see a huge crowd of tourists trekking through these ruins. Yet, the place was quite empty. It was midday. The sun was directly overhead. The few shadows that I did see were extremely dark. It was almost as though these shadows were a part of the remains, the shadows, like the skeletons stopped forever, trapped in the unbelievable horror of that day.HURCU TAVERNA #2The corner eateries are of course empty, too. The kettles, the fires, the food and sour wine wasted, evaporated in the pyroclastic apocalypse. Some menus can still be seen scratched on the scanty walls.  There was no smell of olive oil frying, no odor of a pigeon stew simmering in an earthen crock. I wondered if the only customer might be a hungry spirit.HURCU WALLSIt was a lonely feeling place. The sound of the noisy bustling community of Ercolano, the town that has grown atop the ruins of Herculaneum, does not reach down into these fabled buildings. There are no horns, no squealing breaks, and no children calling to each other in play. The streets and walkways of this city locked in antiquity are silent dusty paths that circle around and around as the archeologists dig, still searching perhaps for someone, a skeleton of a lost hidden soul who did not escape.MR. VESUVIUS LARGEUpon leaving, I took one last look at Herculaneum. It had gotten quite hot, a bright haze hung over the area. Mt. Vesuvius loomed quietly in the background. It all looked so peaceful. I could not even begin to imagine the horror of that day 2000 years ago.

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12 Responses to HERCULANEUM

  1. Sharon on October 30, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    History lesson. So much to learn, you tell the story so well. To bad we didn’t have interesting story tellers when we were in school. I do believe I would have enjoyed history if that were the case. Thank you Marge.

    • Pushing Time on October 30, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      Thank you Sharon for this lovely comment. I, too, agree that history would have been so much more interesting and meaningful if it were done in some form of real time. It is only now in my later years that I understand the thrill, interest and importance of history lessons. I hope that you are feeling better and that your new knee is healing quickly! Regards to the NW!!

  2. thelma straw on October 30, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Always enjoy your travels via film etc… Keep going and writing. T. Straw

    • Pushing Time on October 30, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks Thelma for stopping by and leaving a delightful comment. I do love this travel writing thing!

  3. Chloe C on October 31, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Well, you horrified me!
    I had a 3rd or 4th grade teacher who loved Volcanoes.
    Sorry for the rusty memory, I had an unsettled childhood.
    But with that male teacher in a ghetto school, we explored the volatile planet and it stuck with me.
    Anyway, I have always lingered over the horror of Pompeii and the surrounding area.
    Your post brought it all back.

    • Pushing Time on October 31, 2015 at 4:17 am

      Hi Chloe. I hope the memory of your unsettled past does not linger too long. It was an unbelievable experience to see this place in person. I lived in Washington State most of my childhood and young adulthood with a view of Mt. St. Helens outside our front door. It was the volcano that was always going to blow some day. I lived with that thought. So, it was no surprise to me when it did finally blow it’s top. I have a couple more blog post that I’d like to write about that Italian volcano. The good thing about where you live now is that there are no volcanos in your area.

  4. Jeri Fink on October 31, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Beautifully written and illustrated – I could almost hear the cries of those 300 people. It’s a shame we forget history so easily – this story is far creepier than the ghosts and goblins roaming the streets during Halloween.

    • Pushing Time on October 31, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      Jeri it sounds like you enjoyed this blog post. It was an interesting one to write because I had to look at a couple levels of history and pov of archeologists! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  5. Trish Mayo on October 31, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you for taking us to Herculaneum. Usually the neighboring Pompeii gets all the attention but like you I found Herculaneum brought me closer to the horror of the day when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. While Pompeii is filled with tourists Herculaneum is much quieter, allowing the visitor to walk through those empty streets and take one’s time to contemplate the fate of the residents. Wonderful posting and photos

    • Pushing Time on October 31, 2015 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks you so much Thrish for your comment. I was really taken by surprise at how Herculaneum touched me more profoundly than Pompeii. The overseers of Herculaneum are much more up on preservation and they are working with a profound determination to insure the long life of this world treasure. Glad to hear that you liked this place, too!!

  6. Kent Johnson on January 11, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    Fabulous read, would love to visit some time myself.

    • Pushing Time on January 11, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Kent! So glad to see that you visited my blog. Yes, this is an amazing place. I certainly recommend you try to get there some day!!

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