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The New Treasures of Pompeii (smithsonianmag.com)
89 points by dangerman 55 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 18 comments

Pompeii is amazing, but Herculaneum[1] is just mind-blowing. They're maybe 30 minutes from each other, so it's possible to visit them on the same day if you start early.

While Pompeii was covered in lava, Herculaneum was a bit further away from the volcano, so it got covered in ash - and therefore it's much better preserved.

Herculaneum was kind of a beach resort for the Pompeii rich. It has luxurious villas, the shops you'd expect, and a thermal bath that you could use today and not notice is 2000 years old.

Same with the houses, and the city in general. There's something incredibly familiar in them; I always get the feeling that we haven't invented much stuff since the Romans.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum

I can second the recommendation of Herculaneum, it is an incredible site and I really enjoyed my visit.

There was a collection of papyrus scrolls in the Villa dei Papiri there, which were carbonized by the ash. They were damaged and preserved at the same time by the eruption, so we still have many of them today but the intact scrolls fall apart if you try to open them by hand (similar to trying to unroll a piece of charcoal).

I have been working for a while on a research team that is attempting to read these scrolls noninvasively using micro-CT. The materials of this particular collection are the perfect storm of challenges for this approach, but we are chipping away at the problem. It has been quite a lot of fun to work on. Should anyone find it interesting, here[1] is some of our work from earlier this year, showing a proof of concept on how we can distinguish carbon ink from carbonized papyrus in X-ray even though they appear identical at first.

[1] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal...

"...constructing a custom micro-CT system capable of scanning the larger Herculaneum pieces is feasible using existing technology."

Unbelievable. Are we really that close?

If I might ask: what texts do you secretly hope might be found?

If the morphology hypothesis (of the above paper) is more or less true, then it would indicate it is possible to detect the ink signal if the resolution of the CT scan is roughly at least as small as the thickness of the ink layer on the papyrus surface. We have measured this on some proxy manuscripts made in the lab to be on the order of 5 microns. So if you can scan an entire scroll at that resolution, in theory the data is all there.

The micro-CT machines currently available are either optimized for smaller object sizes or for lower resolutions. The challenge is to build a machine that can scan a "large" object such as an entire scroll at a high resolution. The above comment is saying that you could design and build such a machine using components currently available (expensive, but possible).

That's not the sole obstacle though, next you have to extract the information you want (visible text) from the resulting data. There are some more challenges here yet to be solved, notably segmenting out the individual layers from each other. This is particularly hard with the Herculaneum scrolls, as there are often hundreds of layers all smashed together, and they are wrinkled and warped. But we're working on this too!

Edit: as for the contents, it could be just about anything from the time period. Many of these scrolls have been opened manually over the last two hundred years since their discovery. This has largely destroyed them into thousands of fragments, but in many cases has revealed some text, so we know some of the contents of the library. Much of it is by Philodemus, who was an Epicurean philosopher but not particularly notable. It is believed that there could be more scrolls from other sections of the library still buried, as much of the town is not excavated. If it is shown that we can indeed read the contents noninvasively, it might be an incentive to dig up more of them and see what is there.

Thanks for the details.

I'd like to understand the potential for recovering lost works of any kind. What sort of organizations exist for this?

Burned scrolls, is one source.

In India, there are thousands of manuscripts rotting in temple treasuries.

Palimsets have yet to be discovered in archives.

And even archives themselves may contain lost treasures through misclassification.

Are there other potential sources for finding lost manuscripts?

> I always get the feeling that we haven't invented much stuff since the Romans.

This chest is 3 thousand years old yet looks so similar to contemporary chests: http://www.touregypt.net/images/touregypt/table.jpg (source: http://www.akhet.co.uk/furnit.htm)

I listened to some podcast about these places. Apparently the sewers were well preserved and we could get an idea of their diet from it. They ate giraffes!

Some travel sites recommends not visiting them both at the same day, since Pompeii is very large, and walking on cobble stone is exhausting.

This piqued my interest, have you been to both? Do you have any general advice or travel tips? Did you go up to the volcano peak, if so, do you think that would be doable also for a small-ish child (~6-8 yo)?


So I was there about 5 months ago. I'll be honest, I'm in pretty good shape and even still, Pompeii is way too much to do in a day. Herculaneum is wonderful and very well preserved, but if you only had an afternoon you could see it with some ease. Were I to do it again I'd likely spend one day in Pompeii, one day in Herculaneum and on the slopes of Vesuvius, and at least a day in Napoli proper. That would get everything in any respect, but would let have a real sense of those couple sites.

I've been there in July, visited them both in the same day: Herculaneum in the morning and Pompeii the afternoon. Is impossible to visit everything in Pompeii only the afternoon, in fact we went only in the most famous places but we completely missed the most northern part. I think that in a full day is possible to visit a lot of it, but it depends how much you want to stop and listen to the audioguide (highly recommended). Herculaneum is fine visiting it in the morning, you can enter on each and every house, read the textbook that explain a lot about it, etc. A few advice: prepare yourself for a lot of walking under the sun, those places are really hot (especially in July). In Pompeii there aren't many places to rest in the shade since almost every house have no roof, but there are some fountains where you can fill a water bottle.

On another note you should really spend 2-3 days in Naples, a city which I found (unexpectedly) very interesting and fascinating.

Finally you should really make this card [0], it allows you to take every train, metro, bus, funicular railway, from Naples to Sorrento and allows you to enter for free in the first two cultural sites that you visit. So I recommend you to go first in the two Roman cities and save a few money that you can invest in good pizzas :).

[0]: https://www.campaniartecard.it/campania-3-days/?lang=en

Two months ago I took my 6 year old (who is raised in San Francisco therefore may be more accustomed to pedestrian life than, say, the US average) on the train from Naples to Pompeii at 10am, we spent about 4 hours at the site and caught the train back. She was tired at the end but liked it very much, and I was thinking I wanted to go back some time because there was a lot we didn't see.

I didn't expect the vastness and size of the site. Pretty great.

I was there in January. I regret not making the time to get to Herculaneum, as it sounds spectacular. Covering all the open parts of Pompeii in anything less than a full day would be infeasible, so I'm happy we allocated the whole day there. And yes, it's an exhausting site - fairly flat with gentle slopes, but stones & scale conspire. (I walked 16.5km that day.) I'd also suggest unless you're likely to return, rushing through such places means you miss much of the impact.

I've stayed in Sorento and done both on the same day. It's a lot of walking so you may end up carrying a 6 year old. It was also a full day trip. We left Sorento early and first went to Herculaneum, then Pompeii, and didn't get back until it was dark. Highly recommended.

Also keep in mind that the train (Sorento<->Naples) is rather (in)famous for pick pockets, though we didn't have any issues.

I did both in one day and it was very tiring (and I'm in my 20s). Herculaneum is small enough that anyone without mobility issues can do it, but Pompeii is quite large.

I also went to the volcano and the hike is about 3/4 of a mile and moderately steep. If your children are active they should be able to handle it, but the key is to wear shoes with good traction. Also they sell wine at the top, which is nice :)

I spent 6-8 hours in Pompeii and 4-5 hours in Herculaneum. If you chop down you can see Pompeii in 2-4 hours as well, but then you would miss out the immersion in ancient culture. So I wouldn't recommend visiting both at the same day.

Mind boggling to me is that what we see of Herculaneum is less than a third of what is buried. The rest is under the city and they're afraid excavating it may cause problems (drainage related I believe).

I found this part to be extremely interesting.

> Scratched lightly, but legibly, on an unfinished wall of a house that was being refurbished when the volcano blew is a banal notation in charcoal: “in [d]ulsit pro masumis esurit[ions],” which roughly translates as “he binged on food.” While not listing a year, the graffito, likely scrawled by a builder, cites “XVI K Nov”—the 16th day before the first of November on the ancient calendar, or October 17 on the modern one. That’s nearly two months after August 24, the fatal eruption’s official date, which originated with a letter by Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the catastrophe, to the Roman historian Tacitus 25 years later and transcribed over the centuries by monks.

> Massimo Osanna, Pompeii’s general director and mastermind of the project, is convinced that the notation was idly doodled a week before the blast. “This spectacular find finally allows us to date, with confidence, the disaster,” he says. “It reinforces other clues pointing to an autumn eruption: unripe pomegranates, heavy clothing found on bodies, wood-burning braziers in homes, wine from the harvest in sealed jars. When you reconstruct the daily life of this vanished community, two months of difference are important. We now have the lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Inscription: https://thumbs-prod.si-cdn.com/b-AKU2VJ_IfsLSz6vS4uxPtuRAQ=/...

I can picture the situation. A construction worker is annoyed because their coworker is off eating and not helping construct a wall. The construction worker vents their frustration by doodling on the unfinished wall. That doodle lasts 2000 years and helps archeologists determine when Mount Vesuvius eruption occurred.

Is the Getty Villa built at a 1:1 scale with the original? Because it's impressively big.

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