The World Heritage property includes three different archaeological areas: the ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum together with the Villa of the Mysteries (to the west of Pompeii) and the Villa of the Papyri (to the west of Herculaneum), and the Villa A (Villa of Poppaea) and Villa B (Villa of Lucius Crassius Tertius)in Torre Annunziata. The vast expanse of the commercial town of Pompeii contrasts with the smaller but better-preserved remains of the smaller Herculaneum, while Villa A in Torre Annunziata gives a vivid impression of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthier citizens of the early Roman Empire.
When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it engulfed the two flourishing Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the many wealthy countryside villas in the area. Pompeii was buried largely by a thick layer of volcanic ash and lapilli and Herculaneum disappeared under pyroclastic surges and flows. These sites have been progressively excavated and made accessible to the public since the mid-18th century. However, in the case of Herculaneum large areas of the ancient town still lie under the modern town and have only been explored and surveyed by the network of 18th-century tunnels that drew the attention of Grand Tour visitors, the basis still today for visiting the Herculaneum’s underground ancient theatre.
Pompeii, with its well-preserved buildings in an excavated area of 44 ha, is the only archaeological site in the world that provides a complete picture of an ancient Roman city. The main forumis flanked by a number of imposing public buildings, such as the Capitolium, the Basilica and temples and within the city there are also many public bath complexes, two theatres and an amphitheatre.
Instead, Herculaneum’s urban districts and seafront display a higher level of preservation with noteworthy conservation of upper floors thanks to the pyroclastic material that buried the town. Organic matter was often carbonized by the high temperatures and exceptionally preserved finds include everyday objects such as foodstuffs, architectural elements and wooden furniture.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are renowned for their remarkable series of residential and commercial buildings, built along well-paved streets. The earliest is the atrium house, entirely inward-looking with a courtyard at its centre: the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii is a good example of this type. Under Hellenistic influences, this type of house was enlarged and decorated with columns and arcades and equipped with large representative rooms. In its highest form, this type of Roman house, known from towns all over the Empire, developed into a veritable mansion, richly decorated and with many rooms, of which the House of the Faun and the House of the Chaste Lovers are outstanding examples.
The suburban villas across the Vesuvian area are perhaps even more exceptional in terms of the scale of their buildings and grounds, as well as their lavish decorations. For example, the Villa of the Mysteries is an enormous residence just outside Pompeii’s city walls, which developed from a modest house built in the 3rd century BC, taking its name from the remarkable wall paintings in the triclinium, which depict the initiation rites (‘mysteries’) of the cult of Dionysus.
The two villas in Torre Annunziata are both extraordinary examples of suburban buildings in the countryside of Pompeii. The villa A, so-called “of Poppaea”, is a huge maritime residence built in the middle of the Ist century BC., then enlarged during the Imperial period and under restoration at the moment of the eruption. The villa is especially well-known for its magnificent and well-preserved wall paintings, one of the most important examples of Roman painting with their superb illusionistic frescos of doors, colonnades and garden views. On the other hand the villa B is an excellent example of villa rustica provided with rooms and spaces designated for market activities such storage of amphoras and trading of locally produced foodstuffs, especially wine.
There are many changes to these buildings over time in response to changing circumstances of the owners; these include repairs and adjustments that were a response to the seismic events that led up to the AD 79 eruption and reflect a community living with changing environmental and economic conditions.
A special feature of Pompeii is the wealth of graffiti on its walls. An election was imminent at the time of the eruption, and there are many political slogans scrawled on walls, as well as others of a more personal nature, often defamatory. Instead, at Herculaneum the volcanic deposits preserved hundreds of wax tablets, some of which conserve legal documents, and more than 1,800 papyri scrolls containing Greek philosophical texts were found at the Villa of the Papyri.
The diverse range of literary sources available in Pompeii and Herculaneum provide both a picture of the final decades of these ancient cities and the image of socially complex and dynamic communities, representing exceptional evidence of typical ways of life in Roman society in the first century AD and the importance of texts in political and private life.
Other important sources of archaeological evidence are the human remains of those who died in the eruption. Pompeii witnessed an early archaeological experiment when plaster was poured into voids found in the volcanic material and which allowed casts to be made of the forms of the human and animal victims and other organic material. At Herculaneum, on the other hand, about 300 skeletons were discovered along the ancient shoreline. The study of these significant samples of victims from these towns provides insight into their health, lifestyles and death and a chance to compare one data set with the other. The casts themselves are important resources as they contain both skeletal remains and evidence of 19th– and 20th-century archaeological practice.
Another important legacy of the twentieth century is the way that Herculaneum was presented to the public as an ‘open-air museum’, perhaps Europe’s first, with buildings reconstructed based on archaeological evidence and displays of original objects within the archaeological site. This concept of ‘open-air museum’ was then adopted in many buildings in Pompeii, as a medium to communicate the meaning of ancient spaces
The impressive remains of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and their associated villas, as destroyed and yet preserved by Mount Vesuvius, provide a complete and vivid picture of society and daily life at a specific moment in the past that is without parallel anywhere in the world. The rediscovery and history of these places as archaeological sites has captured the collective imagination century after century, shaping archaeological, art historical, conservation and interpretation practices in Europe and beyond.