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Ancient Civilisations

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The upmarket Roman seaside resort of Herculaneum, near present day Naples, was buried by a flow of gas and mud during the eruption of Mt Vesuvius on 24 August  79 CE (Common Era - often called AD). This was the same eruption that, famously, buried Pompeii. A section of the town has since been excavated. (Photos by Mike Freedman)
Roman columns at Herculaneum Roman bathtub (Herculaneum) Roman fast food shop (Herculaneum) Herculaneum - wine tariff painted on wall mosaic at Herculaneum
These columns show a common method used by the Romans. A brick pillar is rendered and the rendering partly shaped to look like a fluted marble column. Notice how the columns have been painted. This metal bath tub shows how little the design of bathtubs has changed in over 2000 years. It's the best shape so why change it? This picture shows the Roman equivalent of a fast food restaurant. The counter has several earthenware pots fixed into it which would have contained hot food. Being earthenware, the pots would have helped conserve the heat. The front step of the shop has a groove in which slid the concertina shutters that were shut when the shop closed. Painted on a wall is this price list (or perhaps it's a poster advertising the range of wines for sale). Many of the buildings in Herculaneum have beautifully frescoes and mosaics. This mosaic has survived. The decorations on the walls around it have not fared so well.
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jettied building at Herculaneum Roman immersion heater Herculaneum - general view overlooking docks Herculaneum - general view Colonnade at Villa Oplontis
This overhanging building looks very "tudor" in style. It may originally have been rendered to hide the wood work. The strange object in the bottom of this pool in the men's baths is an early immersion heater. The circular piece in the centre was heated from below. Looking down from the current land surface onto what was the docks. The wooden platform running across the front of the arches was just above sea level. The building to the right of the courtyard was the men's baths. At the time this photograph was taken the arch to the left of the (modern) stairway contained several human bones, including at least one skull! Another view of Herculaneum from the current land surface. The photo gives an idea of the extent of the excavations, which cover only about 1/4 of the original town. In the distance can be seen the present-day town of Ercolano which has been built on the volcanic material which covered the Roman town. This colonnaded walkway is at the Villa Oplontis, not far from Mt Vesuvius. Like Herculaneum and Pompeii this large suburban villa was engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Some restoration work has been done, particularly on the roof, but the villa gives a fascinating insight into the life of a rich family in Roman times. (It is reputed to have belonged to Poppeia, the ill-fated wife of the Emperor Nero).
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Villa Oplontis - fresco with perspective Villa Oplontis - fresco to be seen through a window Villa Oplontis - fresco painting of a bird Villa Oplontis - volcanic flow showing imprint of window shutters Villa Oplontis - general view
Books and websites about art history often tell us that the artists of the Renaissance were the first to discover how to show distance in paintings. This fresco in the Villa Oplontis clearly shows that the Romans knew all about painting perspectives. Looking out of the window into a tiny open courtyard, whose main function was probably to collect rainwater, The walls of the courtyard are beautifully painted to represent a garden. This exquisite little bird, pecking at a fallen fig is around 2000 years old! Being close to the volcano, the villa was overwhelmed by the pyroclastic flow of a fluidised mix of ash, hot gas and water. In this room the volcanic material had hardened around the timber window shutters. Over time the shutters had rotted away leaving shutter-shaped holes; early excavators then filled the holes with plaster before digging away the volcanic material, leaving a plaster cast of the shutters. The grey right hand wall of the excavation in this view of part of the back of the villa clearly shows the depth to which it was buried.
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This page was last updated on14 July 2007