Tuesday 10 May 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Herculaneum. Past and Future.
(Frances Lincoln, 2011; 352 pages, ISBN-10: 0711231427; ISBN-13: 978-0711231429)
(For the introduction to this series of posts about Herculaneum Past and Future, see here)

First, some background, which many of you will be familiar with. In 2001, in response to the years of neglect and decay at Herculaneum, AWH was invited by the Packard Humanities Institute to set up a collaborative project with the SANP to tackle the site’s conservation problems. And so the Herculaneum Conservation Project was born, and it celebrated its 10th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Employing mainly Italian experts from many different disciplines (which is undoubtedly why it has been so successful, since this is not a bunch of foreigners telling the locals what to do but a full partnership with the SANP), its impact on Herculaneum cannot be overstated. The site now has a proper drainage network, a series of new roofs, and an effective monitoring system that allows recurring problems to be dealt with. The conservation work of the HCP, as well as ongoing SANP activity using EU funds, has also led to unexpected archaeological discoveries and sometimes had a dramatic impact on what is known about Herculaneum. There are now new theories about its geology and urban plan, and evidence has been uncovered of quarrying along the seafront and of changes in sea level during the century before the eruption of AD 79. There has been excavation of the (in)famous sewer beneath the palaestra block (seen recently on TV), exploration of the old Bourbon tunnels, and new evidence from the Villa of the Papyri.

©Domenico Esposito-Sosandra Srl. Marble panel depicting a religious scene at its moment of discovery in a house in the south-western edge of the town.

©Brian Donovan. Panoramic view of a reopened Bourbon tunnel to the north of the Basilica.

A preliminary discussion of these new discoveries and their interpretation form an important part of AWH’s book, and the conservation and presentation of the site is a recurring and important feature. But the book is much more than a simple publication of the HCP's results. It is a broad analysis of Herculaneum that incorporates the latest HCP data into a discussion of the ancient town's excavation and restoration, its inhabitants, its public buildings and houses, and how it differs from Pompeii. The book is not intended to be a definitive guide to Herculaneum, but it touches on almost every part of it and gives us an incredibly erudite and up-to-date account of this ancient city. It discusses both what we know and what we don’t know about Herculaneum, and what we might expect to learn in the future, and is accompanied by over 300 glossy photos of the site, including previously unpublished archival shots. Quite simply, it is an essential read which reaches out to three different audiences - the general public, the student and the scholar.

For Jeremy Hartnett's response to this post, see here.

Tomorrow, some thoughts about the history of excavation and conservation of Herculaneum.

(All images are taken from Herculaneum Past and Future and are reproduced with the permission of Frances Lincoln).

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