BBC2’s Superb Programme “The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum”.

herculaneum-panoramaSurprisingly, the first time that anyone ever practiced archaeology was in 1738. It was then, on October 22nd to be precise, that Rocque Alcubierre sat down to carefully write down a description of all the things they were digging up at the recently discovered Roman town of Herculaneum, just outside of Naples.

Soon after that, a second town captured in time was unearthed at nearby Pompeii. And the science of archaeology was born, as Rocque and his fellow workers began to ask themselves the sorts of questions that archaeology poses.

Should they put what they found back where they found it? Or should they take it away to be stored somewhere else, where it could be looked after more safely? And if so, where?

cyclades-mapThe word archaeology had first been coined by the Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century B.C., when he described what had accidentally been dug up on the island of Delos.

Delos had always been sacred to the Greeks. The group of island that it is part of, the Cyclades, gets its name from the fact that it is around Delos that the larger islands of Naxos, Paros and Mykonos are circled.

So the Greeks had always assumed that they’d always lived there. But when they dug up artefacts that had clearly come from nearby Turkey, Thucydides correctly argued that there must have been others who had lived there before the Greeks.

But it was only after Herculaneum and Pompeii were discovered some two thousand years later that we began to practice, systematically, archaeology itself. They’d been caked in volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius had erupted in 79 A.D. And they’ve given us an extraordinary window into life in first century Ancient Rome.

Our guide for this programme was Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project in Rome. And what he gave us over the course of the hour were a series of fascinating insights that were as calmly informative as they were quietly moving.

He walked us through the differences between Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii, explaining the different discoveries that we’ve been able to make there, and how it was that they were revealed.

CIMG2004-1Painstaking analysis of human waste, bones and skeletons, together with an array of artefacts has produced an arresting set of images frozen in time. Women and children huddling in shelter, as the menfolk stood desperately out in the open on the beach. A young boy clinging on to his pet dog. A two-year-old girl with her silver earrings, being clung to by her mother.

Wallace-Hadrill was the perfect guide on a fascinating tour. And what a pleasant surprise to see a programme on Rome where the focus of attention was on the Classical world and not on the presenter. Erudition and a certain sense of modesty are not, it seems, a thing of the past.

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