By Tim Wintermute
You can’t be surprised unless you expect something else. In 1709 a man was digging a well in a small town just south of Naples expecting to find water. Instead, he found nudes. For a moment he probably thought he’d bored a hole into heaven. It turned out that the nudes were actually lifelike statues and he had dug himself into the forum of a Greco-Roman city buried under the ashes of Vesuvius in 79 AD. And that was how the ruins of Herculaneum, named after the Greek demi-god Hercules, were unexpectedly discovered.
Unlike the 18th century well digger my wife and I expected to find the ruins of Heraculaneum when we resisted the call of our hotel’s cliff top terrace with its seductive view and set off for the town of Ercolano. After a short walk to Sorrento’s train station we boarded the Circumvesuviana, a commuter train that circumnavigates Mount Vesuvius, shuttling back and forth to Naples. Sorrento being the end of the line, there were only a handful of passengers who boarded the train with us. An hour later, after passing the more well known and popular tourist attraction of Pompei, we arrived in Ercolano where the ruins of Heraculaneum were discovered.
Ercolano’s main street is remarkable only in its drabness and our ten minute walk downhill from the station did nothing to heighten my expectations as to what lay at the bottom. When we reached the end of the street and passed through an arch I was surprised, not by the ruins, but by their abrupt appearance. Ercolano had been peeled back revealing what looked less like a ruined city than one still being chiseled from the stone. It was as if the sculptor, perhaps Hercules himself, had taken a break and someone had given a tug to the sheet he’d draped over his unfinished work.
We followed our guide down the cobblestone lanes, popping inside homes, public baths, shops, temples, a sports complex and seeing some things that you won’t find in Pompei; wood beams, floors, balconies and shelves. There were frescos on the walls and mosaics on the floors but the statues that the well digger had been startled by were nowhere to be seen. This wasn’t because the forum was still buried, which it was, but because the statues had been extracted long ago and, like most of the art and artifacts that could be pried from the ruins, were in museums and private collections. One of the most recent discoveries is the House of the Papyri, a villa that housed an extensive library written on papyrus scrolls containing works that have not been read since they were sealed by the eruption. They have also been removed but, unlike the statues and other artifacts, they remain hidden because researchers have yet to find a way to unroll the papyri without destroying what is written on them. Our guide told us that in order to excavate the House of the Papyri so that it can be open to the public it would be necessary to purchase and remove the neighborhood that sits on top. In fact, in order to expose the rest of the ancient Heraculaneum a lot of today’s Ercolano would have to be scraped away as if it never existed.
As we made for the exit through a tunnel we passed some arched vaults that had been used to shelter boats when the sea had lapped against Heraculaneum before Vesuvius erupted. The vaults were now macabre display cases for the petrified bodies of men, women and children who had been smothered under the pyroclastic surge of gas and ash that unexpectedly descended on Heraculaneum as they were about to escape by boat. What had once been flesh and blood had been transformed in an instance into screaming stone. I couldn’t help but wonder what the well digger would have done if he’d found himself unexpectedly facing these contorted, terror-stricken, bodies instead of those shapely nudes? Would he have thought he’d shoveled his way into hell? If he had, no doubt he’d have quickly high tailed it up the hole he’d bored and sealed it behind him: Herculaneum would still be hidden under 60 feet of rock with Ercolano just another stop on the Circumvesuviana.
We got out of there and arrived back at the station arriving just as the Circumvesuviana from Naples pulled in. When the doors slid open we were face to face with a gang teenage boys who blocked the entrance. Their hair was buzz cut on the sides and the tee shirts they wore allowed them to display their adolescent biceps. I recalled the time in Prague years before when some young men blocked the door to the Metro and attempted to pick my pockets when I entered. I was debating whether this was what we were in for when suddenly the teenagers parted so that we, and the other waiting passengers, could board. Once inside the packed car we squeezed our way down the aisle and, luckily, found two vacant seats. As the train pulled away from the station the boys continued to occupy the vestibule next to the doors, preening in front of the passengers. Suddenly one of the boys reached down to a black box that was hanging from his shoulder by a strap and flicked a switch. I was surprised by an explosion of music; the teenage boys began to laugh then they began to dance to the boom box, a couple of them even swinging from the overhead grab bars by their arms and legs. Pleasantly surprised I sat back in my plastic seat and watched them perform as the train carried us around Vesuvius back to Sorrento. (August 2016)