Pompeii was a piece of cake compared with Herculaneum, for although both cities were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii was covered with little nuggets you can brush away with your hand, while Herculaneum is beneath 100 feet of compressed mud and solid lava.
In town to lecture Wednesday night at the Smithsonian's American History museum, Prof. Baldo Conticello, superintendent of excavations, said there is no telling what treasures may yet be found. A quite spectacular bordello, with pictures on the walls to end all pictures on all walls, has recently been unearthed. (He had none with him.)
"Herculaneum was a very upper-class city, while Pompeii was more middle class," he said. The difference between Newport and Ocean City, one gathered. As early as the mid-18th century, he went on, the king of Naples undertook excavations at Herculaneum, inspired by a fellow digging a well who turned up classical marbles. The king's team dug straight into the Villa Papiri, extracted a number of important bronzes and marbles, and called it quits when poisonous gases killed a few people.
More recently further digs have uncovered a boat caught on the beach, and a number of skeletons. Nowadays instead of making plaster casts, the hollows (holding the shape of the bodies, now decomposed) are filled with a transparent fiberglass.
Conticello would like the whole town to be uncovered, but he suspects the cost would be prohibitive unless it were an international undertaking. One point of his visit here is simply to arouse interest in the buried city -- money will never be forthcoming if nobody ever thinks of the place.
Some of the inhabitants were extremely rich, he said, and keen to acquire culture as soon as possible. They apparently went in not only for grand bordellos but for whatever passed as high art in their day. Hence the extraordinary number of sculptures found in just one villa.
Drainage is a great problem. If you dig shafts through the lava, you make sump holes and have to keep the pumps going. Ideally you drain everything to the sea, but this again is a great undertaking.
He is comforted that Herculaneum will keep indefinitely. His generation will do what it can in excavations, and the uncovered part will still be safe for future digs. But doubtless there are buried libraries still to be uncovered. (What if unknown plays of Aristophanes are still intact there? It was very much the thing to speak Greek in Herculaneum and to collect Greek works.)
Conticello, 53, spent a summer in Sicily with a rich friend when he was 18. They went digging in a tomb and found a jar with a coin in it.
"He kept the coin, I kept the jar," he said.
Later he studied at various universities, and moved gradually up the archeological ladder, digging, administering and lecturing.
A nearby town wants to build a promenade along the sea. Conticello would love to give them that 100 feet of fill that lies over Herculaneum. But he could sure use a hundred million bucks or so, one gathers.