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Paging the Past in “Herculaneum: Past and Future”

Herculaneum: Past and Future Book Cover Herculaneum: Past and Future
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
History › Ancient › Greece
Frances Lincoln

While Pompeii gets most of the play, it was Herculaneum that always seemed to capture my childhood imagination. In the book "Herculaneum: Past and Future," Dr. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill goes beyond imagination to provide a multi-faceted and compelling view of the ill-fated city.

Wallace-Hadrill crafts an engaging narrative that gives unprecedented dimension to the people of Herculaneum and their culture. Besides archaeology, the book covers, architecture, geology, preservation, conservation, anthropology, etc.This is a visually stunning coffee table-sized book that manages to be visually compelling while giving proper consideration to the narrative. More than 300 new images of Herculaneum are featured, including several fold-out panoramic photos. But this book is more than just pretty pictures. The graphs and architectural drawings (e.g. the site plans of the city and locations of excavated skeletons) add a surprising amount of depth you don't realize are typically missing in works that use a visual approach to examine scholarly cultural topics.

Herculaneum in Context

Beginning from the ground up, the first chapter examines the unique geology of the area--the cycle of seismic instability in the region that led to a constant state of repair, redecoration and reconfiguring of the structures there. The chapter also clears up misconceptions about why the city was left so well preserved. It's historic fate was set apart from Pompeii's by the direction of the wind. The chapter on the politics of archaeology poses the question: Why dig up the past? There are many motives, especially for a site whose location and history was never quite lost in the region's communal memory. The noted arrival of Charles Bourbon in the 1730s, was simply the beginning of the "glory years" in a cycle of discovery that occurred over the centuries.

Ruins Restored

The collapse of the ruins at Pompeii have been widely discussed, but researchers have recorded their concerns about decay at Herculaneum as far back as 1832 due to its being less explored by the public. Often good intentions have done more harm than good, as in the case of heavy varnishes damaging paintings and excavations collapsing original structures. This book came out of Wallace-Hadrill's involvement in a 2001 collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute of California and the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii that was designed to address these concerns. This book is a treat for those interested in better understanding heritage preservation practice in historical and sociological context. The book also takes a deeper look into discovery into the conservation of individual artifacts, which has the makings of an interesting volume on its own.

English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), mod...
English: Ancient Herculaneum (foreground), modern Ercolano (center), and Vesuvius (horizon). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Town and its Setting

On feature of Herculaneum I find particularly enlightening is its numerous maps (historical and modern) and architectural models, which are key to keeping the reader oriented to what they're seeing and the nature of the cultural and practical influences. One of the most useful to me is a simple line map indicating the location of the Greek colonies founded in the with to sixth centuries BC and the local Oscan foundations under Etruscan influence in the same period.

The People and Culture

Along with delivering all the skeletons and imaginings of gruesome deaths one would expect, the author delivers a good bit of demographic data to fully illustrate the vibrancy and cultural diversity during the heyday of this seaport town. As he states:

The same point of death has the rare advantage, archaeologically speaking, of freezing a cross-section of the population, of different ages and social standing.

I've heard a lot about the boat sheds where many inhabitants met their deaths, and Herculaneum includes the story, photographs and even a breakdown by gender and age of the skeletons found there, and even a map that show the location and depth where they were found. The book backtracks to examine legal documents and statues of political leaders to construct a fascinating tale of the city's slave culture. Likewise, the architecture of the famous Suburban Baths attracted affluent visitors, which defined the public face of Herculaneum.

One of the most captivating stories in book details the Herculaneum Conservation Project's excavation and conservation of a marble head of a statue of an Amazon. There are photos of the half-buried artifact at the moment of discovery and an exquisite detail shot of painting around the eye. The rare preservation of the pigment (which is also extensively evident in the hair) is owed due to immediate involvement by professional conservators in its cleaning.

Standards of Living

It turns out, home size was not an indicator of class and wealth in Herculaneum. Indeed the town's growth over eras led to intriguing interpretations of architectural styles. The author usefully illustrates his insights with three-dimensional floor plans. The architecture and sculpture is most noted in these cultures since they are mostly what survived the catastrophe. Some carbonized wooden furniture survived in Herculaneum and is included. The small tables, cupboards and cradle provide a strikingly human element to this story. Perhaps because they are objects that the inhabitants would have interacted with (indeed, they look like those modern humanity uses), and not just dwelt in or admired.

The author thoroughly contextualizes class, architecture and everyday living. Most interesting was the Conservation Project's excavation of the sewers beneath the Palaestra block. The sewer was divided into one-meter lengths and excavated stratigraphically. Occasional sandy layers marked flood events. The finds there reveal more about the daily lives of the inhabitants as their art and architecture.

The Tale of Two Cities

The book's penultimate chapter provides an interesting comparison between Pompeii and Herculaneum. As the author states:

Put Pompeii and Herculaneum together, and it is like looking through two eyes. They may be close together, but that is enough to restore a sense of depth. It is because they are both similar and different that they give us a more three-dimensional view.

Here we learn that Herculaneum was a relative "small town" compared to Pompeii's metropolis. They had different political standings. Part of our fascination with Pompeii may be its famed brothels or the fact that it was one of the best places in the world to study gladiatorial games. The intimacy and complex personal relationships of Herculaneum's inhabitants put a damper on vice.

The Future of the Past

Wallace-Hadrill concludes "Herculaneum" fittingly with an analysis of the town's present, and the challenges it continues to face. These cities, though ironically well preserved by the disaster that befell them, were fundamentally damaged by it. Now exposed, their conservation is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true in Herculaneum, where carbonized material like structural wood beams are being held together by wax treatments. The politics of competing interests has played a role and has been famously blamed for structural failures in Pompeii in recent years,

Still, there are conservation victories, like the "House of the Gems" which is illustrated with before-and-after photographs. Regarding expansion of excavation versus conservation of what's already been unearthed, the author's closing thoughts comment on Herculaneum's being likened to a time capsule...

But a buried treasure lies secure for future generations. For our own generation, it is enough to appreciate the extraordinary value of the treasure that has already been dug up, to look after its merits, and to pass it on to future generations.

Note: This book was a review copy provided by the publisher. More information can be found at www.franceslincoln.com