Ruined columns and distant mountain hidden in cloud
Italy,  Lens-Artists,  Ruins

Fragments of the past in Pompeii and Herculaneum

The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

James Salter, American author

Sometimes little fragments can be as evocative as the complete picture, and perhaps never more so than when contemplating the past. Visiting the iconic sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum back in 2007 I found myself as intrigued by the small details of life in these cities as I was in the grand civic buildings.

Let me share some of those fragments for Brian’s Lens Artists Challenge. But first, some history …

The eruption of Vesuvius

Pompeii was once a large and wealthy city, with a population of around 20,000, and all the necessities of Roman life. There were temples, markets, theatres, shops, public baths, taverns and of course numerous houses. Despite the earlier warning of an earthquake in 62 AD, its people must have gone about their lives blissfully unaware of the threat that loomed over them.

Ruined columns and distant volcano
Vesuvius from the Forum

When Vesuvius erupted on the morning of August 24th 79 AD, a great noise was heard, and a mushroom-shaped cloud of gas and volcanic rock rose high in the air, darkening the sky. A shower of burning cinders and rock fragments covered the city. It lasted until the next day, caving in roofs and claiming its first victims. The people tried to take shelter in their houses. Some hoped to escape by walking on top of the layers of pumice stones constantly being formed, which by this point were more than 2 metres deep.

But at dawn on August 25th a violent explosion of toxic gases and burning cinders devastated the city. It infiltrated everything, taking those who were trying to flee by surprise and making every form of defence vain. A shower of very fine ash was deposited everywhere to a depth of more than six metres. It enveloped everything, adhering to the forms of the bodies and even the folds of their clothes.

Plaster figures sprawled on the ground
Plaster casts of some of the victims, overcome by the enormous power of the eruption while vainly trying to flee

When, two days later, the eruption finally ceased, the entire area had changed. A blanket of white ash covered everything. The eruption had changed the course of the Sarno River and raised the sea beach. Pompeii was now neither on the river nor adjacent to the coast. The whole city was declared off limits, to protect the property of the survivors, and was never rebuilt. In fact the city was largely forgotten until its re-discovery in 1748.


Walking the streets here it is quite easy to imagine yourself back in the days when the city was intact. The stones are multi-sided and carefully fitted together with considerable skill, with gaps less than 3mm. The large stones are grooved in many places, where carts have worn away the stones. Some of the narrower streets have the grooves deliberately cut into them, to guide the traffic.

The high raised pavements would have kept pedestrians well clear of the dirt, debris and horse manure, in the street. There was no sewer system, except in the area around the forum, so water from the drains flooded the streets and flowed through the city walls through openings created especially for the purpose. At each intersection you can still see, and use for yourself, the raised blocks of igneous rock, like stepping stones, which would have enabled people to cross the road without stepping down into the water and mess. As you cross, think of the thousands of Pompeian footsteps that must have gone before you on their way to the baths or shops, or perhaps to the forum.

There are of course many public buildings here (temples, baths, the forum itself). But today I want to focus mainly on the houses, fragments of which tell the story of those who once lived here.


When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 Herculaneum was buried in volcanic mud rather than in the lava which engulfed its more famous neighbour, Pompeii. It lay hidden and nearly intact for more than 1600 years. The, in 1709, it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well. Its ruins have been differently preserved, compared to those of Pompeii. The mud did relatively little damage to the buildings, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up.

Ruined houses with newer apartments and distant mountain
The ruins of Herculaneum and modern city beyond

Herculaneum was a smaller town with a wealthier population than Pompeii at the time of its destruction. These seaside villas would have been very desirable residences, and the lifestyle of those who occupied them comfortable indeed. Think of them sipping wine on the terraces overlooking the bay, beautiful mosaics and friezes adorning the walls of their homes. Slaves catered to their every need, of course. And they could relax in this pleasant climate, far away from the hassles of the city.

I loved wandering around envisaging all this. But then I recalled the terror that must have descended on this peaceful spot when the inhabitants suddenly realised the enormity of what was happening to the mountain that looms over it. Many had sufficient warning that they were able to escape. Some however did not, and their skeletons were found by archaeologists huddled together in boat houses on what would have in those days been the beach.

I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum in 2007; all these photos were taken then, on a less good camera than I use these days!


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