Volcanoes and archaeology: pros and cons

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Vesuvius Herculaneum Google Earth

Oblique view to the northeast of Mount Vesuvius today, with Herculaneum in the left foreground; note the current Bay of Naples shoreline has left the former port of ancient Herculaneum almost a quarter mile inland.

Volcanoes can be violently destructive. On the other hand, when all that fresh lava and ash breaks down, it makes some mighty fine soils for growing plants.

Volcanoes do destroy human houses and settlements. However, they can also preserve them by sealing them under ash, lava, and other eruptive materials.

One of the ways archaeology contributes to modern economies is through tourism. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, and the eastern Bay of Naples, Italy, now has several archaeological sites destroyed by the eruption that daily host floods of tourists from around the world.

Here are a few photographs from Herculaneum, a sea-edge port town that was covered by up to 60 feet of mud and ash, which sealed several stories of the town’s buildings. More buildings and streets extend beneath the modern city and have never been excavated.

Herculaneum from park walkway adjacent

When most tourists enter the archaeological park from modern Roman Herculaneum, they walk along the edge of the excavated area, and can see the Bay of Naples in the distance over the roofs of the ruins.

Herculaneum from entry walkway

The original waterfront of ancient Herculaneum faces what looks like a moat—it was the beach—and the excavated face of the now compacted ash/mud from Mount Vesuvius. Notice how thick the volcanic deposits are.

Herculaneum inside SE exposed area

View from ancient Herculaneum to modern Ercolano, with unexcavated volcanic deposits to the right.