Sunday, 15 May 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. Part 3: Early development and topography

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.)
The new findings revealed by AWH regarding the early history, site and development of Herculaneum contribute hugely to our understanding of the town’s earliest years and thus make this book essential reading, not just for those interested in Pompeian archaeology, but for anyone interested in Roman urbanisation in general. This post focuses on the parts of the book that deal with this subject, primarily to be found in the fourth chapter of the book (‘The town and its setting’). In this chapter AWH explores the scanty evidence furnished by the literary sources which is set against and contextualised by a number of important recent discoveries made thanks to the work of the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP).

The early development of Herculaneum has, to date, been difficult to perceive. This is primarily due to the significant redevelopment of the town from the Imperial period that has hidden the earlier remains but is also due to a lack of stratigraphic investigation of the kind that Pompeii has been subjected to over the last decade and a half. Such attention at Herculaneum, I think, has been long-overdue and although we are far from fully understanding the earliest phases of the town, AWH and the work of the HCP have taken several strides in the right direction.

© James Andrews. Herculaneum’s legendary founder Hercules, depicted in a IV style painting in the so-called Shrine of the Augustales (VI.21-24)

Dionysus of Halicarnassus attributes the founding of the town to Hercules, claiming that the demi-god anchored his fleet at this spot as it afforded ‘safe moorings in all seasons.’ For AWH the connection with Hercules implies very early origins for Herculaneum and that we should consider the arrival of the Greeks in the 8th century BC on Ischia and subsequent inhabitation of the northern part of the Bay of Naples as significant in this regard. Yet Strabo makes no mention of Herculaneum ever being under Greek control, instead telling us that Herculaneum was held by the Oscans, Etruscans, Samnites and then Romans. AWH suggests this omission was probably deliberate but does not define why this is so. He claims that the foundation myth is a sure sign of the town’s Greek origins and suggests there was a conspiracy of silence regarding this in the literary sources. Dionysus of Halicarnassus is, in fact, the only source for the Hercules foundation myth, although Martial did make reference to the Hercules link in the name of the town after the eruption. Other authors, writing long after the Romanisation of the town, have no greater authority on this matter. Ultimately, the lack of any archaeological or epigraphical evidence of Greek foundation renders any much later literary interpretation unreliable as a sole source for foundation. AWH does make the point, however, that any Greek settlement at the site must have pre-dated Oscan control as Etruscan-Oscan settlement to the southeast (at Pompeii and other cities) had been a response to the presence of the Greeks in the area. The site of Herculaneum, although close to Neapolis (10km to the city centre) was located at the fringe of early Greek settlement on the Bay of Naples and at that time would have been in close proximity with Etruscan-Oscan territory, with which relations were at times hostile. If Herculaneum did have a Greek origin then I think we should consequently envisage a complex history where the early settlement changed hands several times.

Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence from Herculaneum does not provide dateable material from this far back to confirm the presence of such an early settlement; the earliest masonry buildings appear to belong to the 2nd century BC. It might simply be the case that any early settlement lies elsewhere and not under this part of the town. I agree with AWH that we have to instead look to the town plan, which is probably the best indicator of the earliest origins of the town. The grid plan is believed to have probably post-dated that of nearby Neapolis (founded in the 5th century BC) although the insulae are proportioned more like other cities of Italic origin. Indeed, one recent study argues that the arrangement of the insulae followed the Oscan foot. A possible date of the 4th century BC for the grid plan has been suggested on the evidence of small test trenches (although future stratigraphic investigation might provide more definitive information), This date belongs to the Samnite phase of Herculaneum, at which time the inhabitants appear to have been largely Oscan-speaking. Interestingly, recent cleaning of the shoreline conducted by the Herculaneum Conservation Project has revealed evidence of quarrying of the natural underlying tuff creating a cliff face on which the town walls were set, thus making it more defensible. AWH states that this work ‘provided the alignment on which the road system was based’ and that the setting out of the streets occurred at the same time. Further details on the nature of the quarrying are hopefully forthcoming (I wonder how the quarried tuff was used given it was little used in wall construction at Herculaneum and when one considers just how much of it must have actually been removed), but this new evidence makes clear that the Herculaneum we see today was initially intended to be highly defensible, consistent with the fortified town described in the accounts of Strabo and L. Cornelius Sisenna.
© Linda Irollo-Sosandra Srl. Plan of site, showing isomorphs which reveal the underlying shape of the natural terrain (heights above modern sea level marked in metres).

AWH also provides new information on recent geological findings (core samples) that throw further light on Herculaneum’s topography. These findings, supported by a test trench along a street to the north of the House of the Telephus Relief indicates that originally the land beneath the Palestra and this house had dropped steeply away to the south, consistent with Strabo’s account that the town had been situated on a spit of land. However, in the imperial period this area was subject to massive artificial terracing in order to build the Palaestra and the House of the Telephus Relief, which were also on a different alignment to the grid plan (although it should be noted that oldest parts of the House of the Telephus Relief was actually on the same alignment as the rest of the town, only the peristyle and southern multi-storey of the house part belonging to the later works were aligned differently). This project was very probably related to the works on the basilica, city walls and gates undertaken by Marcus Nonius Balbus (CIL X 1425) and must have entailed considerable expense; we are told this was out of Balbus’ own pocket.

On the evidence of the escarpment to the southeast and a high sea level in the final years of the town (of which more below), AWH believes that the harbour as mentioned in relation to Hercules must have lain just beyond the house of the Telephus Relief, an assertion repeated frequently throughout the book. Only further samples taken to the southeast of the Palaestra will confirm if a ‘harbour’ did indeed exist in this area. But perhaps we should not be looking for a formalised harbour as such and rather a sheltered bay as in the reconstruction offered in the book? Shelter could presumably have been simply provided by the natural headland on which the Casa del Rilievo di Telefo was apparently located. Further core samples might also provide evidence of the eastern limit of the town and one of the rivers that L. Cornelius Sisenna indicated flanked it. The same applies to the river on the western side of the town, which AWH suggests may have reached the sea in a space devoid of buildings between the Villa of the Papiri and the south-western corner of the town (Insula I), identified during the excavations of the 1990s. Here further excavation is at least possible and might reveal whether the river was indeed here. 

Of the changes in sea level in the final years, the new findings revealed by AWH are intriguing (chapter 1). A test trench carried out by the HCP next to the east face of the multi-storey bastion of the House of the Telephus Relief has revealed the existence of yet another level of arches and columns below that visible on the AD79 surface; thus this part of the house originally extended over 4 levels. The arches, like those immediately above, were later filled in, the blockings bearing signs of water erosion (here it becomes a little tricky to marry up the narrative with the images although can be seen in section on p. 21). Evidently the sea level had risen, resulting in the abandonment of the two lowest floors. But the story doesn’t end here as the area in front of the bastion was protected by a large retaining wall and a ground level raised by 3 metres. The sea appears to have then retreated until sometime after the construction of the Suburban Baths in their present form next door when it rose again damaging the façade of the baths. This prompted the construction of a new protective wall in opus reticulatum along the southern façade of the baths, before the sea finally retreated again (similar repair to wave damage has recently been identified by the Laurentine Shore Project in a quay belonging to an imperial villa at Torre Paterno, Castelporziano). This phenomenon, known as bradyseism, was almost certainly connected to the build-up in activity in the magma chamber beneath Vesuvius that caused the ground above to rise and fall. Such conditions must be seen in the context of seismic activity during the same period; the evidence in the town above suggests that Herculaneum was indeed gravely damaged by the earthquake of AD 62/63 (and quite possibly later events) but by AD 79 appears to have largely recovered following a comprehensive program of rebuilding and redecorating. The picture on the shoreline is thus subtly different and appears to have been one that was continually changing.

To finish off, AWH has provided an invaluable contribution to studies of Herculaneum. However, this has also left us with many new questions. Can a harbour be identified and what kind of harbour might it have been? Given the presence of large harbours at Puteoli, Misenum and even Pompeii and that the shoreline at Herculaneum was rather steep , perhaps we should be looking for evidence of something relatively small that could have facilitated local trade. Shipping must have been utilized to bring building materials from the Campi Phlaegraei during the first century AD for example (as we can assume was the case for Surrentum). Was the narrow gap between the villa of the Papyri and Insula I wide enough for the river mouth on this side of the town? Further, what happened to the excavated tuff from the shoreline? Could some of it have been used elsewhere (i.e. at Naples)? This material is rather soft and not well-suited for use for columns or carved elements (a harder grey tuff was used early on for that) but was used for framing entranceways and for corners during the pre-Roman period. Finally, although the date at which the grid plan was set out remains uncertain, if we assume this took place during the 4th century BC, can any parallels between this and the defensive works be drawn with any other cities on the Bay of Naples at the same time? 

Links to the other posts in this series:

Herculaneum. Past and Future.
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview, a response
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 2: Excavation and conservation
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 4: The Villa of the Papyri
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 5: Herculaneum's public buildings

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