“Underground Herculaneum”: Talk by Professor Michael Scott

On Tuesday 25th February, we were delighted to welcome Professor Michael Scott from the University of Warwick to the Iris Classics Centre and Rumble Museum to give a talk on Underground Herculaneum to an audience of Cheney classicists from Years Eight to Twelve, parents, and a number of external visitors.

Michael began by looking at some of the differences between the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was destroyed in a different way to Herculaneum, which was buried deeply, and due to the intense heat that affected Herculaneum, a range of things were preserved – from wood to papyrus scrolls – which were not preserved at Pompeii, making Herculaneum a particularly interesting site.

He spoke about the effect of the heat on the bodies at Herculaneum, and how large numbers of skeletons had been discovered hiding in boathouses by the shore. These had been exposed to temperatures so high that the flesh had been burned right off their bones, and some of their skulls had cracked because their brains had boiled inside them. For some time, scientists had thought that somehow glass beads had got into the skulls of the victims there, but recently it has been discovered that these fragments of glass are actually bits of brain tissue which became so hot that they vitrified.

Michael took the audience on a journey into the theatre at Herculaneum, which had only recently been made available to the wider public to visit. We saw the steps leading down to the stage area through tunnels which had been made – and supported by metal rods to prevent them from collapsing. Much of it is still buried. One of the most fascinating images was what looked initially like a statue high up on the walls of the theatre. It turned out to be the imprint of the statue, which must have been thrown up by the force of the eruption. We also looked at some of the amazing things preserved in the houses at Herculaneum, including the House of the Wooden Screen, which a beautiful wooden partition door. Michael explained that this house belonged to someone who was very wealthy, but the next house along was much more ordinary, showing how the poor and rich lived side-by-side in the ancient city.

He talked about the fascinating site of Baia, a sort of Roman party town, which was now mostly underwater, with some stunning mosaics and a huge thermal bath. This was where wealthy Romans went to let their hair down. Michael read some lines of poetry from the Roman writers Martial and Propertius which referenced the wild reputation the area had.

Finally, Michael took questions from the audience, ranging from the effect of tourism on the site, to the debate around whether the eruption took place in summer or autumn (it is now widely regarded as having been autumn, as the clothing of the victims and available food point to this).

We are very grateful to Michael for making the time to visit and deliver a very fascinating talk!