Why Travel to Pompeii?World-renowned Pompeii is the birthplace of Archaeology. Before Giuseppe Fiorelli invented the systematic excavation and recording system here, there was only looting. Pompeii gives us an unparalleled snapshot of 1st-Century Roman life, preserved for over 1700 years under several meters of volcanic ash that killed over 16,000 people.
But it's more than just ruins, facts, and figures. In Pompeii, you can see the ruts made by centuries of carts carrying life's necessities; walk through family houses and see their portraits; see family possessions; enter shops, businesses, bakeries, laundries, theaters, and places of worship we might recognize today. And most poignant of all, you can see Pompeii's residents - men, women, and children trapped in rock in poses of mortal agony. This was a town inhabited by people as real as you or me. You can feel that in Pompeii.
Pompeii TravelTime: If you're in a hurry, plan on a full day in Pompeii. I recommend 2 days just within the city, plus a day for Vesuvius and Herculaneum.
Difficulty: You'll spend all day walking on rock-hard pavement in the hot sun, so be prepared like you're going on a long hike. It can be tiring. Take plenty of water with you -- 2 liters at least, more in hot weather. There is drinking water in the ruins. Take snacks. Less mobile folks can just make a shorter tour of it. Consult with your tour guide about options.
Considerations: Pompeii is hotter than the surrounding areas because of the heat-reflecting pavement, so be prepared with water, hat, and sunblock. There is shade in some areas, but not a lot. There is one place to eat within the walls, and it's not terrific. Expect crowds, but Pompeii is so big it won't feel packed. It closes at sunset.
Tour Guide: If you're short on money, you can tour Pompeii without a guide by bringing or buying books, but I don't recommend it. Tour guides know all the nooks and crannies, and those are what's most interesting. They know a lot of details hard to decipher from books, and they don't get lost (which is very easy). I highly recommend Gaetano Manfredi, who is very well educated and experienced. My group of mostly PhD Geologists learned a lot from him. Find tour guide reviews at travel websites, and look for education, depth of knowledge, and English ability. Friendliness is good, too, but is wasted if the knowledge and language aren't there.
Accommodations: The city of Pompei has a lot of good options, so I recommend staying there. If you're willing to walk, you can save a bit of money by staying farther from the main entrance (which is on the SW corner of the ancient city). I stayed at Hotel Diana and loved it -- good facility, excellent staff, good price, close to Pompeii train station, long walk to ruins entrance, which is a bummer after a long day, but worth it.
Transportation: A train station is located right at the ruins entrance called Pompei Scavi, and the modern town has another a mile away on a different line called simply Pompei. There's also one on the far side of the ruins called Pompei Valle that's not close to anything. Check carefully to take the right line from Naples or Sorento at Trenitalia's website. There's no need to rent a car in Italy -- in fact, let me put it this way: DON'T DO IT! Driving in this country is madness. Italians don't need a Demolition Derby -- they live it every day.
Interactive Google map. Travel to Pompeii is easy, but you must make sure you get on the right train line.
The Geology of PompeiiOf course, Pompeii is famous for being buried by an eruption from Mt. Vesuvius, which still looms over the ruins. But few visitors realize the nature of the volcano and of the eruption that buried the city. And few realize that Vesuvius is an active volcano with potential to do it again.
Volcanoes are scattered throughout the Mediterranean because the African plate is slowly converging with and diving under the European plate. Volcanoes spring up where the subducting plate goes deep enough to cause melting. The boundary has a complicated geometry that puts it under much of Italy, forming the Appenine mountains and the active volcanoes near Naples, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and on Sicily at Mt. Etna.
(Above) Google Earth view of Italy, with some of its famous volcanoes labeled. Plate boundary from USGS.gov.
The Vesuvius (locally "Vesuvio") volcano we see today is not the same shape as the one that erupted in 79 A.D. It has erupted dozens of times and in every century since, most recently in 1944. The peak we see today is the result of these younger eruptions, and it sits within a larger volcano called Somma that collapsed about 17,000 years ago. More potentially active volcanoes surround Naples on its west side -- look for them in the Google map above.
Before 79 A.D., the volcano had not erupted since 217 B.C. That means the citizens of Pompeii had no generational knowledge that it was a volcano, and that it was dangerous. In fact, when it started erupting, no one seemed to know what was happening. This lack of knowledge increased the death toll by delaying evacuation.
The rock erupted from Vesuvius is basalt and andesite. Basalt forms lava flows and fountains, while andesite can erupt explosively to form ash (dust and sand) and pumice (light-weight, bubble-filled rock). See my Volcano Primer page for more information on volcanoes and terminology.
It's important to realize that the geologic term "ash" refers to pulverized rock -- it is heavy like sand. It only takes several inches of ash to collapse a modern roof, much less a Roman one.
A pyroclastic surge (or flow) is a hot avalanche of semi-molten rock and toxic gases that can travel well over 150 miles per hour. The ones that buried Pompeii formed when the eruption column became so enormous, it collapsed back down onto the volcano and rushed down the slopes. A surge kills you by poison, heat, suffocation, and burial all simultaneously -- a horrible, agonizing way to die.
Vesuvius EruptionThe combination of eyewitness accounts and detailed examination of the volcanic layers gives us an hour-by-hour, foot-by-foot account of the eruption.
August 24, 79 A.D.
1:00 p.m. White ash begins to fall east of Vesuvius.
1:30 p.m. White pumice begins to fall at Pompeii.
5:30 p.m. Continued ash fall starts to collapse roofs.
8:00 p.m. Grey pumice begins to fall. It's harder and heavier. The ash is getting deep in Pompeii.
August 25, 79 A.D.
1:00 a.m. Herculaneum is buried by the first big pyroclastic surge.
6:30 a.m. Ash fall has continued. Pompeii's northern wall is hit by a pyroclastic surge.
7:00 a.m. A pyroclastic surge enters central Pompeii.
8:00 a.m. The largest surge covers Pompeii.
Pompeii is rediscovered when artifacts are dug up in wells.
Pompeii Scavi (Excavations)All kinds of maps and diagrams of Pompeii are readily available on the Web. I'll illustrate here the sights that moved me and my travel companions the most.
(Above) These blocks are a Roman "no carts beyond this point" sign. Looks like they were serious! When the streets were being flushed with water from the civic water system, pedestrians could cross on the raised blocks you see in the distance.
(Above) This merchant's house has been beautifully restored. You can walk through like it's a model home today -- dining room, bedrooms, hallways. Some houses feature frescos of the owners.
(Above) This was a well-to-do family's dining room. The furniture has all been removed to warehouses and museums, but can you picture the family sitting around the table, talking and laughing about the day's events? Standing in their room, I could almost hear them.
(Above) There are beautiful paintings all over Pompeii. Their vivid colors, detail, and subject matter tell me these were intriguing people.
(Above) I think the mosaic tile floor and frescoes in this house would do any Beverly Hills mansion proud.
(Above) This beautiful ceiling was restored to its original position above the entrance of a merchant's home. Many had their business or shop in the front, and the family home in the back. Now that's my idea of a good commute!
(Above) Most houses include an ancestor shrine like this one.
(Above) The great Anfiteatro is on the far eastern side of Pompeii. It shows that good ol' Roman engineering prowess. They sure liked their brick arches!
Archaeologists quickly learned that while they were digging through the ash, if they found a cavity they should stop and fill it with plaster. That's how the people and animals found at Pompeii were preserved. The plaster contains their skeletons; their skin and soft tissues burned and rotted away after forming a mold in the ash long ago.
<end of trip>
Related Posts: Herculaneum, Vesuvius