BSR visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum


Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay with award-holders at the House of Venus in the Shell, Pompeii (photo by Caroline Barron)

Now is undoubtedly a special time to visit Pompeii. After several years of continuous conservation work by the Parco Archeologico di Pompei as part of its EU-funded Great Pompeii Project there is a wealth of houses now open to the public, previously hidden away behind closed doors. The recently restored frescos have been given a new lease of life: the famous House of the Orchard with its garden scenes or the hunting scene in the House of the Ceii.

This week the award-holders, staff and residents spent two days exploring these two famous UNESCO sites nestled under Mount Vesuvius. The beauty of going at this time of year is that the sites are less overwhelmed with mass tourism and the cooler temperatures allow for the sites to be explored at a more leisurely pace.


Cast of the blocked street entrance door, House of the Ephebus (photo by Elena Pomar)

Having worked at Porta Nola necropolis for several years, I began our tour at the amphitheatre entrance to the site as it is here that we now find on display the haunting casts of a few of the victims of the eruption of AD 79, some of which were found in the layers of pumice outside Porta Nola. We threaded our way through the amphitheatre and gradually worked our way up Via dell’Abbondanza, enjoying the recently reopened House of Venus in a Shell, House of the Ephebus (with a cast of the blocked street entrance door – pictured here on the left) and the Fullonica of Stephanus.

We took a few minutes to stop outside the Schola Armaturarum as it was the sad collapse of this building in 2010 that instigated this new phase of work (the building has now been restored and has dedicated visits every Thursday). Under the guidance of Professor Massimo Osanna (Honorary Fellow of the BSR) and Generale Giovanni Nistri of the Arma dei Carabinieri, much of the site has been returned to the public. Alongside this, consolidation work to tackle some of the drainage issues in Region V has led to some recent amazing discoveries (see this handy overview map at ècampania), such as frescos of Narcissus, Leda and the Swan and a curious charcoal graffiti that perhaps provides further evidence for a later autumn eruption date (17 October) rather than the established date of 24 August given to us by Pliny the Younger.


Staff, award-holders and residents at the Schola Armaturarum (photo by Elena Pomar)

After passing through the forum to admire the stunning view of Mount Vesuvius towering over the Temple of Jupiter, our tour concluded in front of the (copy) of the famous mosaic of Alexander depicting the Battle of Issus at the House of the Faun. It’s hard to do justice to such an amazing site in five hours, but hopefully the glimpses that we saw will encourage people to return or perhaps even feed into their work whilst at the BSR.


Copy of the Alexander Mosaic at the House of the Faun, Pompeii (photo by Peter Campbell)

Our second day on the Bay of Naples was a short hop from Pompeii over to its sister site, Herculaneum. The BSR has a long history of involvement in this extraordinary site, beginning with the important continuing efforts of the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP), led by former BSR Director Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and generously funded by the Packard Humanities Institute.


The SplendOri exhibition at Herculaneum (photo by Elena Pomar)

Similarly to Pompeii, the site has recently become an autonomous park under the direction of another old friend of the BSR, Dr Francesco Sirano. Significant work over the past years has also seen much of the site reopened to the public, a point made by the director in a short introduction given to the BSR visitors on arrival at the site, followed by a tour to the current SplendOri exhibition (a highlight being the reconstruction of a scene in a fresco of a table with glass vessels and silver ornaments, which are displayed alongside).

Thanks to the offices of the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano and the wonderful HCP team, the BSR group was given a special tour of the famous theatre of Herculaneum, the point at which the city was once again discovered in 1738 following the sinking of a well. Led by Dr Domenico Camardo, a leading expert on the city, the group was guided in the darkness around the labyrinth of Bourbon tunnels until emerging at the foot of the shaft where the statues that once adorned the scaenae were hauled away.


Dr Domenico Camardo shows the group around the Bourbon tunnels inside the theatre at Herculaneum (photo by Niccolò Mugnai)

Whilst much of the marble decoration was stripped away in the 17th and 18th centuries to be sold in Naples, the theatre is unique in that much of the coloured stucco inside and the painted exterior are still preserved.


Relief of the face of Marcus Nonius Balbus (photo by Stephen Kay)

But perhaps the most poignant impression of the devastating effects of the eruption and the subsequent burying of Herculaneum in volcanic mud is seen in the eerie relief of the face of Marcus Nonius Balbus. A statue of the wealthy benefactor of the city was in the theatre, and an impression of the statue (since removed) was left in the solidified volcanic mud.

The two Vesuvian cities are at another remarkable moment in their history. The ongoing work of the Great Pompeii Project and the new phase of research and conservation underway at Herculaneum by the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano and HCP means that these cities are once again flourishing, being returned to the public in a way not seen before. I can only encourage you to go and visit and, if you have been before, go again!




Stephen Kay (Archaeology Officer)