Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tweets from Herculaneum

Go anywhere these days and you undoubtedly find those ubiquitous little devices in everyone's hands be they cell phones, or for the little tikes, some sort of game widget. To add more blush to this technological rose, cell phone conversation has been abstracted a step farther through texting and more recently, the tweets of "Twitter". It seems that people at a distance, the pull and push of information and other distractions in the form of games to offset the “Mom, I’m bored” laments are more important than the people we are with. All appearances of communicating aside, we aren't even talking to each other, just messaging and ‘friending’ back and forth without real contact.

When I watch its practitioners and ask a devotee why they prefer this route, the answer invariably is that they just don’t want to carry on a conversation at the moment, preferring instead the short e-burst of a reply to avoid further interaction. Does all this texting, messaging and 'friending' help? I’m somewhere between “I’m not so sure” and “I doubt it strongly”. While I note the phenomenon, I'm no psychologist able to properly gauge its long term implications. Layman that I am, I'd estimate that essentials like the ability to interpret body language, voice inflections, tone, carriage and the vital skill to interact effectively with others are in jeopardy. Call me a "Luddite" but I have a hard time with these e-world technological advancements. Technology, the golden child of our age, many times impatient for society to adapt, its social ramifications of little concern, produces ripples in the social fabric. From ripples to tsunamis at the click of a button! If I had my say, we’d go back to carbon paper copies and mimeographed “dirty purples” to encourage a slowdown. Like slow food, slow down and a slow life are far more preferable.

Thinking about my Italian friends, how could they ever manage without some animated hand gesture, facial expression or meaningful grunt to punctuate a poignant phrase or simply add subtlety to the limitations inherent with words? More or less all Italians convey added meaning this way, especially through hand gestures. I guess we might properly call Italians “handy” - no “happy face” icons for them! Classic Italian gestures include the tagliato, something impossible to tweet, where you slide a thumb down from below your eye to your jaw to express cleverness or the cunning of a fox. Then there is the ancient cornuto (sign of the horns), with only the index and pinkie fingers extended, sometimes meaning your wife is not faithful when the gesture is made downward and more often attempts to ward-off evil or seek supernatural protection when expressed toward the heavens. The cornuto is ancient, going back to the time of Caesar, even before. Thank archeology for uncovering much of what we know of the ancients, whether it be their visual “hand tweets” or insights into their habits and lifestyles. Much of it is due to their bountiful harvest.

Can you imagine for a moment entering 2000 year old homes, their ancient rooms largely intact, seeing a bed, elegant floor mosaics, wooden staircases, statuary, furniture, murals painted on thick plaster, household items, even a loaf of bread marked with its purchaser’s symbol before it had been baked? Due to an accidental discovery (a farmer enlarging his well) and later the disciplined work of archeologists, you can, in a Campanian city on the shoreline of the Bay of Naples called Ercolano, or more familiar to us, Herculaneum. We had visited Pompeii before but never its neighboring city of Herculaneum located closer to Naples. It was time.

In comparison to its famous sister city of Pompeii, this relatively small resort town of about 4000 people is a forgotten victim of Mount Vesuvius. The end of its idyllic existence began around 1pm on 24 Aug 79 AD. Actually, evacuations may have begun weeks earlier as the earth began to rumble and shake when the initiation of earthquakes foreshadowed its coming annihilation. Many of the inhabitants must have recalled the earlier quake of 62 AD, which had extensively damaged the city, but with the billowing smoke from the mountain this was somehow different. Because it didn’t go dark in Herculaneum as it had in Pompeii, they must have watched in awe, quickly reverting to fear, as a ten mile high ash column rose and drifted southward over Pompeii. It was a calculated risk to live where they did there in the shadow of Vesuvius, but then while they knew and understood what earthquakes were, this cataclysmic volcanic eruption had to have been a surprise. Lacking the equivalent of a Mayan calendar foretelling their end, they had no idea what was coming. While there may not have been a single word in their vocabulary for “volcano”, they employed ample terminology to describe the effect, as in the Latin phrase mons flammas eructans (mountain belching fire). There is also added evidence that they were aware of the phenomenon since they worshiped Vulcan, their god of lava and smoke to include the fire of volcanoes. As they witnessed the eruption many an inhabitant may have quickly turned in prayer to Vulcan, possibly even to Tellus, their god of the Earth, and for added measure, to Neptune, god of the sea and surprisingly also of earthquakes. It wasn't the gods punishing them after all, just the physics of blast overpressure, heat and an incessant rain of ash similar in explosive force to hundreds of Hiroshima size bombs. Paradoxically as it may seem, if Herculaneum had not been destroyed, then lost, none of it would be with us today.

It had been on our list of must sees for some time for it offered a window into a Roman world trapped in time. Being close the Naples, it was a short trip from Calitri. Well marked, we found it without a hitch. We parked just down the street from the entrance to the archeological site at a conveniently located restaurant that offered free parking for the duration of our visit so long as we ate there. We obliged and took our lunch there but other than the free parking that’s all I can say positive about the place. The service at 'La Terra something or other' was terrible. Terrible enough that I cannot recall its name, that and the food marginal. We left after giving up waiting any longer for an errant pizza and headed down the street to Herculaneum. We were with our friend Bernie, who being British had the right EU documentation to get in at a discount. While it had worked for us once in the past at a Naples museum when we’d shown our wallet sized birth certificates, here the attendant quickly caught on. The wealthy Americans paid full price, unable to qualify even for the senior rate!

Crossing an access bridge, the first area we walked is today called the Sacred Area. It sits on a platform above vaulted boat houses, which had once lined the ancient shore. That shoreline was pushed nearly half a mile farther out to sea due to the debris from the volcanic avalanche. It was here that we found the rough remains of two temples, the first dedicated to Venus and the second to a pantheon of four gods, protectors of trade and production: Vulcan, Neptune, Mercury and Minerva, each evidenced by individual relief plaques (see Photo Album). Like many of the tangible artifacts of Herculaneum (and Pompeii as well) the originals of these reliefs have been moved to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, another must see.

In an area to the east of the temples stands a statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus, once a Roman Proconsul and city benefactor. Adjacent to the statue is a memorial altar in his honor. Both are prominently on a terrace in front of the Thermae (thermal baths). It was only due to its over-construction that the baths managed to survive the eruption and its aftermath. Sturdy walls of brick-faced concrete with vaulted ceilings support its massive interior. This interior remains in a remarkable state of preservation. When it was unearthed, you would have expected that some remains of townspeople would have been found in this popular and fortified public facility, yet it was found vacant, only adding to the mystery ... where had the people of Herculaneum disappeared to? Since only a handful of bodies were found about the town it had been assumed there had been time to escape. Had everyone been so fortunate?

Only in the last 30 years have approximately 300 skeletal remains of inhabitants been discovered. They were located huddled in the shore-side boat sheds below the temple Sacred Area we'd visited. Apparently many had assembled there awaiting or hoping for rescue, which failed to arrive in time. Thankfully, death came instantly from the sudden onset of intense heat. It was so extreme that it caused contractions in their hands and feet evident from an examination of their remains. With a single convulsing spasm it was over. Horrific as it was, their skin evaporated from a superheated gas pulse moving at 100 mph. This fluidized mass of turbulent gases, called a pyroclastic surge, is estimated to have been well over 500 degrees. Seconds later,subsequent to their deaths, this intense heat caused their bones and skulls to explosively rupture as internal moisture vaporized. Events occurred so quickly their flesh would have been incinerated, thus accounting for the mysterious lack of physical remains about the town. This cringe-worthy find in the boat sheds is not on display in Herculaneum. We had seen a full scale three-dimensional diorama of the skeletal layout in the Boston Museum of Science (see Photo Album). Included was a realistic replica is what has been coined "The Lady of the Rings". On her left hand an emerald is visible, on another finger one of ruby while gold bracelets and earrings lay at her side. Others near her died clutching children, not gold. Although she was certainly different from those she was found with, her story forever a mystery, death had been the grand equalizer.

Unable to tweet, text message or post a photo of the eruption to “Facebook”, as the pummeling sound of a rocky rain outside gradually sealed their fate, they may have signed a ‘cornuto’ toward the heavens and the gods of the Olympian pantheon in supplication for salvation from their desperate predicament. Later in the night for the few huddled in the boat sheds, hope all but lost, the situation grim as Vulcan prepared to unleash his hammering heat pulses upon the city and exterminate all life, there may have been time to 'transmit' one last prayerful appeal - one last 'cornuto’ in hope of being judged worthy to rest in Elysium (the Elysian Fields). The town and its people were subsequently buried, cocooned in up to 80 feet of pumice, volcanic ash, mud and other pyroclastic materials and remained entombed for almost 1800 years (1710 AD). Sure there were mythical stories and rumors of the ancient tragedy but they too were eventually lost with time, its location misplaced, its actual existence erased from recollection.

Walking the now long empty streets, its stone pavers seemingly radiating a heat absorbed through the centuries, was different from our experience in Paestum, even from our many trips to Pompeii. Beyond the Greek temples of Paestum there remain only the low short walls of homes and municipal building making it difficult to recreate in your imagination what the city may have been like. In contrast, the area unearthed is far more extensive in Pompeii. It has the feel of a city. Although its now roofless buildings had also crumbled under the weight of ash and pumice, walls are taller, buildings more intact and streets more defined making it easier to visualize a once thriving community. Much smaller Herculaneum, however, is in a better state of preservation than Pompeii making it easier to decipher its secrets and appreciate its original splendor. Imagine for a moment multistoried ‘Roman condos’ some with balconies jutting out over wide avenues; 2000 year old beams, the wood blackened, cooked by ancient volcanic heat, some transformed to carbon; shutters and ornate sliding divider panels; decorative murals and brightly colored columns; places of business like ‘Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite’ where we found amphora jugs stacked on wooden shelves and caught a peek at the owner’s bed frame just visible upstairs. All these nuances of life intact added humanity to the aloof abstraction of the place and cast the illusion that its inhabitants could return at any moment. Of course there is no one at home, in fact, as you walk the streets of this ghost-town you get the feeling everyone just up and left.

I was amazed at the realization that here before me, as ancient as it was, was original wood. In storage deep within the earth all these intervening years, it had survived. I could only imagine the craftsmen who had labored to create the door jams and lintels around us, then, when they had been finished, how proud their owner must have been. I visualized those who long before us, over the 600 year history of Herculaneum, had passed this way, many through these self-same portals, as they came to visit, attend a dinner party or conduct business. I was also taken by being able to place my finger on the grooves that had been clearly scribed into once soft plaster by some unacknowledged artist who long ago prepared his outline for a decorative mural he was about to “post” in someone’s home. Mythological scenes, depictions of hunts, faces, architectural patterns, birds … these were the equivalent “Facebook postings” of their time. The layout for the artwork, art which today unites our ages, was clearly discernible, some already colored in characteristic bright hues, as if the artist had only put down his brush and gone off briefly for lunch at one of the nearby cafes.

We had noticed the now long empty clay pots (above photo) embedded in the counter of a street-side “fast food” eatery. Hard as it may be to believe, at this time on the Italian peninsula there were as yet no tomatoes, potatoes, spaghetti, risotto or corn. Porridge and bread were the staples of the Roman diet. There were two main kinds of bread in fact: panis artopicius (pan bread) cooked on a stovetop and panis testustis (pot bread), baked in an earthenware vessel. Along with bread, the inhabitants of Herculaneum also ate doves, chickens, figs, dates, olives, grapes and cooked fowl. As strange as it may seem to us, they also enjoyed dormice as a snack-food! Edible dormice are more on the order of a squirrel than the pesky mice we try to rid ourselves of today. Though we may consider them pests, edible dormice were so popular with Romans that they were actually raised on farms. Garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment, would also have been popular. Dormouse dipped in garum for added zest with every crunchy bite? I best skip that thought.

If ever there was a special icon or avatar construct to represent a culture, a witness to life, able to tell us of their lives, their ways, their last moments, it is preserved in Herculaneum. Today a modern city of 650,000 people surrounds this once lost Roman seaside city. Such dense present day urbanization has meant that only a fraction of Herculaneum can be excavated, since the modern day city sits above the old. With only a quarter of the city unearthed, many government and civic buildings known to be there, like the city’s forum, a theater, gyms and additional baths, still wait to tell us their story. Their "messages" to us have survived, intact yet until they again see the light of day. They may, however, not be ready for us. Today Herculaneum's fragile structure is crumbling. Though remarkably preserved from the ravages of time until unearthed, it is in much need of conservation. In Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite (House of Neptune and Amphitrite), for example, we watched as archeologists using long swabs tediously dabbed each piece of glass of an intricate mosaic in an attempt to inoculate it against our modern harsh environment (see Photo Album). Herculaneum it seems is in a new race with time for its survival. Some places are not meant to last. Herculaneum is not one of them.

As the sun fell away to late afternoon and we departed this city of quiet stone and timber, a place where history becomes visible with every turn of the shovel, the silhouette of Vesuvius loomed in the distance. Vulcan, Neptune, Mercury and Minerva are no more, their omnipotence usurped by a new god, Technology, whose seismic tentacles daily monitor Vesuvius' heartbeat. The spirits of this still active volcano, which last erupted in 1944, are content and quiet for the moment. It remains, however, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because three million people today live in its shadow. Hopefully, our little town of Calitri, far to the east, is out of its lethal range. Just in case, nevertheless, as I departed, I raised a hand to the sky and signed one last 'cornuto' to the ancient gods for good measure in hope that our future would not be Herculaneum's past. Take time to visit this singular place, it has been waiting for you.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos (as well as those from other adventures ), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Herculaneum”.