Herculaneum: Past and Future by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Book Review by Melvadius

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has a strong association with Italy and specifically with Herculaneum having been director of the British School at Rome between 1995 and 2009. Since 2001 he has been the director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, tasked with addressing the many ills that had befallen Herculaneum in previous centuries of excavation and display. This important work has received strong support from the Packard Humanities Institute. In his new book, Herculaneum Past and Future, Wallace-Hadrill has seamlessly blended his own experience with the history as well as current work on the site and possibilities for future developments to stunning effect.

My own first experience of Herculaneum was in company with someone whose early training in civil defence had them fighting the urge to search for survivors in what seemed on the face of it to be a recent disaster site. Reading this book brought that early sense of wonder back in full measure however it also raises spectres of potential disaster which have and still threaten the survival of this unique site.

There are some books which you cannot wait to open and Herculaneum: Past and Future as far as I was concerned is definitely one of those. This 352 page work is comprehensively well illustrated not least with a front cover image of the excavated remains of Herculaneum with the implied threat of Vesuvius firmly visible in the background. However this is only one of over 300 illustrations each of which add a depth and vibrancy to the book which will be hard to replicate in any other work.

It is a work which demands space to be read properly, it is also one which I found if left unattended in an occupied house may seem to take on a life of its own, moving around and seeming to open itself to different pages. Panoramic images from the site are spaced through the book; several printed on fold-out pages which are complemented by computerised images, isometric drawings of excavated buildings, maps and plans including a final plan of the main excavation area which folds-out from inside the back cover to six times its original size. When reading this book the final map is an invaluable resource for the central area of the site as the narrative progresses across the site.

In his preface Wallace-Hadrill laments the fact that at most there are only two books devoted to Herculaneum in comparison to the numerous works which continue to be written about its bigger neighbour Pompeii. The last major work on Herculaneum was that of Joseph Jay Deiss, originally written in 1966 and not revised since 1993. This book has not been written as a guidebook, nor does it cover its topic in as much detail as the promised academic reports will do however that does not stop Wallace-Hadrill from exploring his chosen topic in a wealth of detail.

There are eleven main chapters in the book plus three final sections with further reading suggestions, a short glossary and a chronology of the site. The first chapter covers the geology of the site which is so integral to how the site was initially destroyed and why so much has been preserved. The book then covers the continuing political imperatives which have influenced work on the site from its early discovery up to the modern day before looking at how the site has been prepared for exhibition to its admiring public.

The fourth chapter on ‘the town and its setting’ explains the reason for the town being where it is and looks in part at how the physical constraints of the location as well as Roman political changes influenced its development. Later chapters discuss numerous and to some extent increasingly detailed examples of what is now known about the inhabitants of the town, its public buildings, how people lived there and differences between upper and lower class buildings. The tenth chapter extends this discussion to the near and not so near neighbours of Herculaneum including Pompeii but extending comparisons to Rome as well as other more local towns in the area.

It is in these chapters that some of the greatest surprises will lie for many visitors to the site as our view of the towns’ state of preservation and the relative ‘quality’ of houses undergo a series of almost seismic shifts. Revelations from recent excavations into a large cess-pit under the palaestra block will also surprise many.

Wallace–Hadrill doesn’t pull any punches in what is generally an extremely well written work especially where he describes how early decisions on how to excavate, present and conserve the town have led to numerous false or at least incorrect impressions being generated. These have often been done for the best of ‘current’ intentions but have stored up major problems for the current state of the site.

The final chapter encapsulates much of what has been said about the problems of the site and well as exploring some of the future possibilities for it and the surrounding towns while taking note of the political and cultural influences which will continue to have an impact on what can be done for the site.

This book is not fully academic since although the illustrations are generally in closed proximity to the sections talking about them they are not individually referenced or numbered, nor are there individual footnotes. However the ‘Further Reading’ section contains a wealth of references specific to each section which includes full academic works all sorted by general topic heading such as ‘Modern understanding of the eruption’ in chapter 1 or ‘On Mauiri’s excavations’ in chapter 3.

There are a couple of very minor issues with the book, I have already mentioned the ideal need for somewhere to spread out while reading this book but there are also a very few typographical errors notably in the illustrations. The second part of the illustration at the top of page 24 refers to ‘upper pyroclasts’ when is should depict ‘reddish tufo’, I couldn’t find the ‘red arrow’ referred to on the page 272 illustration and the illustration on page 276 is a line drawing rather than ‘archival photograph’. However as this is at heart a very complex and thought provoking book in this context the fact that a couple of relatively minor typographical errors have slipped through is understandable.

The jacket cover blurb for this book claims it as ‘the definitive overview of what we know and understand about Herculaneum, of what is still unknown and mysterious, and of the potential for future discoveries in both archaeological and political contexts’. Before reading this book I doubted the last point but having read it I cannot but agree.

To paraphrase Wallace-Hadrill from his preface; Herculaneum is an extraordinary site which does not deserve the neglect it has received in non-academic works. In my view this book goes a very long way to redressing that lack; it can be read on several different levels, either as a very detailed and thorough ‘academic’ overview or as a very superior ‘coffee table book. For whichever reason it is bought it is a book which cries out to be picked up and read and even if only intended to be dipped into the reader may well find themselves drawn into a wealth of unsuspected details about this very important site.

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