For the people of Herculaneum, only the first of these – S-1 – mattered. They would have known nothing of what followed. The widening caldera and the reducing energy of the eruption had the effect of destabilising the column and causing it periodically to collapse. Each collapse generated a ‘surge’ of gas, ash, and small particles, followed by a ‘flow’ of heavier, denser, ground-hugging debris, the two in combination known as a nuée ardente.
“The impact was that of a cosmic flamethrower.”
Each time, surge and flow poured down the mountain slopes like a raging torrent, the surge moving at perhaps 100 miles an hour, the flow more slowly behind. The evidence indicates a temperature of around 500°C when Surge 1 struck Herculaneum. The impact was that of a cosmic flamethrower. The people on the beach cannot have known what was coming. The cliffs on which the ancient town stood blocked their view of the eruption. On the beach We know a surprising amount about them, thanks to the work of Sarah Bisel, Luigi Capasso, and other physical anthropologists who have been studying their remains for 35 years. Some had probably arrived after nightfall, judging by the number of lanterns found in the sheds. Most had probably come in household groups, including one notable cluster found huddled together, three men, four women, four children, and a baby cradled beneath a teenager. This ‘Household in Flight’ was almost certainly from one of the grand residences, one of the splendid atrium-and-peristyle houses adorned with frescoes and mosaics admired by tourists today, because one of the children, a three-year-old, was wearing gold-and-pearl earrings, and even the baby wore jewellery. But the group included slaves. The teenager cradling the baby had teeth grooved by malnutrition, arm bones scarred by excessive muscular exertion, and evidence that she had spent much time running up and down stairs: surely a slave? The municipal elite was also represented by the ‘Rich Woman’ (the names are those given by the researchers). Tall, strong-boned, wellnourished, about 45 years old, she is likely to have had two or three children. She was found lying on her side with a treasure of jewellery that included two gold earrings, two gold finger-rings, and two gold bracelets; an engraved bird struts across the red-carnelian inset on one of the finger-rings. It is easy to imagine her holding court as materfamilias in one of the waterfront domus on the cliffs above.
(Not villa, by the way, but domus. A common mistake. Villa was the Latin term for a country house, domus for a grand house in town.)
The Past | April/May 2021