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Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius

Above are 2 videos / slideshows – one of Pompeii and one of Herculaneum – which were devasted and frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The images from the videos will bring to life what I have written below.

On August 24, AD 79, at about 1pm, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and ash and pumice rained over Pompeii for 18 straight hours. By the time the pummeling stopped, Pompeii was completely covered . . . the town literally had disappeared beneath the ash and debris . . . and at least 2,000 people were killed. The weight of the ash collapsed most of the roofs of homes and buildings, but most walls remained intact. Ironically, this ash covering also helped preserve the town. Pompeii truly is a city frozen in time. Excavations began in 1748 and are still ongoing as archeologists believe there is more to be unearthed and discovered.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed not only the working port town of Pompeii, but also the resort town of Herculaneum, as well as several other settlements. The eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases to a height of 33 km (21 miles), erupting molten rock and pulverized pumice and ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.

An actual photograph from a more recent 1944 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius

The people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were unaware that their mountain was a volcano, as the last eruption of Vesuvius had been 1,600 years prior. So, when smoke, earthquakes, and loud rumblings began, the townspeople remained - interpreting these signs as good omens from the god Vulcan rather than warnings to flee. Ironically, the day before the eruption had been a day of celebration called Vulcanalia, when the Romans honored their god of fire, Vulcan. The modern word, volcano, is derived from his name, and the people who worshipped him had no idea they were about to become victims of Europe’s deadliest volcanic eruption.

Mount Vesuvius is now listed among the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Volcanologists and geologists alike agree that the next volcanic eruption is overdue and that when it does happen, it will be big. The layer of magma that lies beneath Vesuvius measures 154 square miles – that’s an enormous amount of magma. When the volcano does eventually erupt, it has the potential to be massive, affecting over 3 million people and destroying the city of Naples. There is good news though . . . with scientists monitoring the volcano’s activity around the clock, this time there will be plenty of time to warn nearby residents and move people to safety.

Because Pompeii was completely covered from the volcanic ash it was difficult to rediscover. As a port, people knew that the town was located on the sea, but the eruption had filled in the harbor and pushed out the coastline. So, whenever there were searches for remains, they would head to where the new coastline was . . . which was the wrong place as Pompeii was now located farther inland. It wasn’t until the mid 1700’s that excavation began in Pompeii and the discoveries that lead to its uncovering were purely accidental.

The powdery volcanic ash that buried Pompeii had proved to be an excellent preservative. The archaeological ruins of Pompeii cover around 440,000 square meters, a vast area that really can’t be taken in with one day’s visit. Keep in mind that Pompeii is an entire buried city with squares, temples, baths, public buildings, private villas, and shops. Herculaneum Is a much smaller resort town and can more easily be handled in a half-day visit.

As Carla and I walked both archaeological sites we found them, of course, incredibly fascinating, but also heartbreaking. They were fascinating because of how well intact the ruins were and what they tell us about everyday Roman life at that time. It was heartbreaking, of course, because of the devastation and the fact that so many lives were lost in such a cataclysmic event.

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are well worth the visit. It’s a surreal experience to walk through an ancient town that essentially appears frozen in time. And we’d also recommend checking out the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The museum houses a huge collection of art and artifacts from both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

And thank you for watching the videos of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are from the photos that we took as we strolled the streets of these ancient towns. The videos will provide you with a visual tour of these fascinating and ruinous cities in a way that words could never achieve.

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