Known to some as 'Town of Hercules', fabled to have been created by the Greek demigod on his travels back from Spain, Herculaneum is a small Roman village (around 55 acres) located approximately 6 miles from the shore of the Bay of Naples in Italy, that was once used as a leisure resort for wealthy and powerful Romans. It was also a village that stood at the foot of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. When Vesuvius erupted without warning on 24th August A.D 79 , Herculaneum met the same end as Pompeii and Stabiae.

After the explosion, some areas of the village had been buried beneath more than 65 feet of pyroclastic flow, and Herculaneum's shore line had been pushed back more than 1500 feet further out to sea. When word of the devastation reached Rome, the Senate declared the whole region a disaster area. Thousands were killed.

Years later, another town grew near the original Herculaneum. In the early 1700's, a farmer sank a shaft for a well and found, to his amazement, pristine marble statues far below the surface. Shortly afterwards, another shaft was sunk - this time a theatre was discovered. In 1738, the Government of Naples undertook the task of excavating the site, but with the debris much deeper and more difficult to work than in Pompeii, digging stopped in the 1800's. The excavation was resumed by the Italian Government in 1926.

The evidence accumulated in these excavations show that Herculaneum was a very beautiful and unique village. Buildings were found to have exceptional wall paintings, mosaics, statues and priceless works of art. The village had excellent drainage facilities - with an underground system designed to carry rainwater and waste out to sea, Herculaneum was by far a cleaner and quieter town compared to Pompeii. Most of the archeological finds are housed at the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

Until recently, scholars have assumed that it was the inhalation of volcanic ash and gases that suffocated the victims of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum. Modern science and the recent discovery of more victims, found on a Herculaneum beach, has proven otherwise. Study of bone fragments and the positions of the remains of the victims show 'without a doubt' that they had 'died in a fraction of a second after being exposed to a blast in excess of 750-degree Fahrenheit'.

The position of the remains of these victims indicates that adults were attempting to shield the children at the time of death.

Visiting the ruins at Herculaneum was quite an interesting experience. If you have the chance to see them, I highly recommend it, but you should probably see Pompeii first because the ruins at Pompeii will give you better perspective on what you'll see at Herculaneum.

To get there, you'll want to leave from Sorrento or Naples on a bus or train headed for Ercolano Scavi (Scavi di Ercolano). The ruins are open from 8:30 to 5 p.m. with final admissions at 3:30 from November through March, and they're open from 8.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. (final admissions at 6) from April through October. You should plan to spend at least two hours exploring the ruins, and you should enlist the help of one of the knowledgeable guides who approaches you near the entrance. They'll expect a tip, of course, but it will be worth it, because the mazelike ruins are poorly marked and are very hard to tour on your own.

As Jaz states, Herculaneum was a much smaller city -- 5,000 inhabitants versus Pompeii's 20,000. But because Herculaneum wasn't extensively excavated until the mid-1900s, the ruins are overall in much better condition because they haven't suffered as much from looting and erosion (the latter may become a problem, though, since the excavations to me seemed under-funded and proper preservation seemed lacking in places).

Some of the houses in Herculaneum have original wood beams and furniture still intact, though of course they're charcoaled. Thus, you're much better able to see how the houses were built, and other architectural details are much more apparent. And while the tilework at Pompeii is quite wonderful, in Herculaneum you'll see better tile examples where colors have stayed intact over the millennia.

As with Pompeii, the best treasures from these ruins are kept at the museum in Naples, though you will see some fine frescoes and statuary here. Probably the most impressive art you'll see here is a vibrant mosaic wall in the House of Neptune, which is toward the back of the ruins.

On the whole, visiting Herculaneum is a much quieter, more scholarly experience than seeing Pompeii. You'll see many more school groups than tourist groups, and the bookshop at the ruins is much more geared to selling actual books than tourist trinkets. So, if seeing Pompeii inspires you to read up on Roman history, you might wait to see what kind of books you can find in the Herculaneum store, because you'll see a better selection overall.

The ruins don't have a cafeteria or snack bar, but you can bring food in with you as long as you dispose of your trash properly. There are several snack shops just across the street from the ruins' entrance that will sell you sandwiches and drinks to go for a reasonable price (many of the sit-down restaurants in the area are a bit spendy).

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