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Site history

Ancient Herculaneum was never quite forgotten but the Roman city was not ‘rediscovered’ until 1709 when a farmer digging a well found some marbles; later it was realised that he had discovered the Roman theatre. Before long King Charles of Bourbon had taken over the excavations, which were continued by his successors who were interested in finding art works to display at the Royal Palace at Portici. Explorations in this period were carried out by digging vertical shafts and tunnels into the volcanic material. It can be argued that the discipline of archaeology in Europe began at Herculaneum at this time, as excavation was for the first time accompanied by systematic scientific approaches and technical documentation. There is no doubt that the re-discovery of Herculaneum had an enormous impact on European culture.

Open-air excavation began in 1927 under archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri and most of the Roman city that can be visited today was uncovered in that period. Maiuri formed a team of workers who excavated, restored and presented the Roman houses to the public and then maintained them. Part of Maiuri’s approach was the idea of an open-air museum, where he displayed finds in some of the buildings to illustrate Roman daily life. Unfortunately, these displays barely outlived Maiuri at Herculaneum (he retired in 1958) and was gradually dismantled, with the finds being taken into storage for protection.

The maintenance routine that Maiuri had established also began to fail after his departure, and gradually the site fell into a state of decay. In 2001 the gravity of this situation was recognized by the Packard Humanities Institute which launched a conservation project in partnership with the local heritage authority in order to tackle the problems of decay and to find new ways of approaching the site’s maintenance.