The most interesting fact about Pompeii and Herculaneum — the two towns in Italy that were destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius — is that the digging out is not nearly finished. Almost two thousand years since both towns here along the coast below Naples were instantly covered in hot ash, smoke and lava coming down at a speed of 100 miles per hour, a variety of projects and their directors are hard at work uncovering more ancient houses, streets, atriums, shops and baths. So if you visited Pompeii or Herculaneum on a college trip, say, 40 years ago, there is a great deal more today that you have not had the pleasure of discovering. Indeed, it was not until 1990 that 300 skeletons were discovered huddled together under the ash and cooled lava that buried Heraculaneum in August of 79 AD.
About one-third of the town of Pompeii is still under between 50 and 60 feet of earth today, and 75 percent of Heraculaneum — a smaller (one quarter the size of Pompeii) and wealthier town than Pompeii about 15 miles north (Call it the Nantucket of Naples, where the wealthy Roman and Neapolitan patricians built expensive vacation homes by the sea), still lies under the ash that was hotter (932 degrees Farenheit) and faster and heavier than that which buried Pompeii, thus preserving living things better than at Pompeii. Wood beams that were around during the time of Christ have been preserved and can be seen holding up some of the partially destroyed homes in Heraculaneum. The scalding mud preserved the timbers of hundreds of structures that would have rotted.
It was not until 1709 that a Prince Ebeuf started tunneling through the dirt to get what he evidently knew were buried treasures from this seaside resort of Roman patricians. He unearthed beautiful dishes, jewelry, furniture and frescoes, mosaics and other valuables, many of which have made their way to museums in nearby Naples. Today, even though two-thirds of Heraculaneum is closed because of the work being done on its restoration, it is eerily exciting to walk the ancient streets of the town, look into lavishly adorned bath houses with atrium ceilings, see frescoes still on the walls, and large pots that were used in the bodegas to serve hot lunches to the citizens who were living in this town right after Christ. You can walk the city quietly and imagine the life of the wealthy Heraculaneumians, or you can rent an audio guide or hire a human guide to explain the site in greater detail. In either case, you should plan on spending at least two hours in either place, and you could spend whole days in either place, if you are seriously into archeology.
What you must do, however, before you reach the ruins, is stop at the Museo Archeologica Virtuale (virtual archeological museum) which offers a stunning and dramatic picture of what life was like in Heraculaneum almost 2000 years ago. Wearing a pair of 3-D glasses which the museum supplies, you stand before a video in which Vesuvius grows intensely disturbed, heats up, and finally explodes and rushes toward you as if you are one of the citizens caught in the eruption. The floor beneath your feet shakes, the trees blow down toward you, and this short film is so much better than the current 3-D “Minions” ride at the Universal Orlando studios in Florida that you should be embarrassed that you waited six or seven hours to see the latter, if you did. The Vesuvius eruption, after all, is real, and at least in the winter of 2016 there is no waiting, and the guide will ask politely in which language you would like to experience this ‘ride.’
Among the things you can see at the museum are some of the frescoes that show the activities in the brothels of Heraculaneum, where female slaves served both the lower classes and the patrician men who arrived in wigs to disguise themselves.
In the 18th Century an architect named Domenico Fontana launched large-scale excavations of both towns, and now, a number of projects are busy restoring more of the ruins of these UNESCO World Heritage sites. They include work of the Herculaneum Conservation Project (which is trying to slow down the rate of decay and test conservation strategies), the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project, the Getty Conservation Institute project, the MOSAIKON Initiative to conserve mosaics, and the Arches Project, a collaboration between Getty Conservation Institute and World Monument Fund (WMF).
If you do not want to take on the expense of hiring a driver from Naples to get to these two fascinating sites, you can jump on the train in Naples and be in Heraculaneum in about 20 minutes, and in Pompeii in another 15 minutes. From the train station in Heraculaneum, the virtual archeological museum is about a four-block walk, and the ruins are another three blocks from the museum. Each site costs about $12 for an entry ticket. Guides taking you around Pompeii are charging $100 plus gratuity. The virtual archeological museum costs about $11.