Wooden wonders of Herculaneum

September 24, 2023

An astonishing array of wooden objects has survived from Herculaneum, carbonised by the volcanic eruption that destroyed the town. This invaluable material may be less showy than the celebrated marble and bronze statuary, but it was still used for everything from beams and boats to purses and small shrines, as Dalu Jones finds out.

opposite Detail of a lararium (small shrine for the household gods) from the House of the Wooden Shrine, Herculaneum,1st century AD. Size: 163 x 73cm above The ruins of Herculaneum, with the modern town above the site.
Detail of a lararium (small shrine for the household gods) from the House of the Wooden Shrine, Herculaneum,1st century AD. Size: 163 x 73cm

In 1738, the Bourbon king of Naples, Charles VII, built a summer palace nearby at Portici. The official Bourbon excavations at Herculaneum began the same year, attracting the attention of travellers such as Horace Walpole who wrote in a 1740 letter, ‘This under-ground city is perhaps one of the noblest curiosities that ever has been discovered… They began digging, they found statues; they dug, further, they found more. Since that they have made a very considerable progress and find continually.’ At Portici, Charles assembled the artefacts that were being excavated not only at Herculaneum but also at Pompeii, Stabiae, and the rich countryside villas devastated by AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. Before long, a Herculanense Museum was established in one of the wings of the palace for the king’s pleasure and that of his guests.

It became a major landmark for travellers on the Grand Tour in Italy. Famous writers described with awe the profusion and beauty of the objects. Goethe was among them in 1787, calling the Portici museum in his Italian Journey ‘the alpha and omega of all collections of antiquities’. Visitors would admire in the splendid rooms of the palace detached fragments of frescoes framed and hung like paintings, reassembled opus sectile marble floors, and alabaster jambs framing the doors of antechambers filled with marble busts and bronze statues. Most of the antiquities in the palace at Portici were moved in 1816 to the Museo Borbonico in Naples (today’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples), and the palace now hosts the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Naples Federico II, while the surrounding park can be visited as a botanical garden.

The ruins of Herculaneum, with the modern town above the site. Image: © Zach Jones

An extraordinary feature of Portici is that the main road linking Naples to the southern provinces passed through the courtyard of the palace itself, allowing different classes of people to mingle freely within it. Along the road, other magnificent palaces were built for the aristocracy. These are, at last, the focus of conservation efforts and will be used as venues for exhibitions linked to the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum. For example, the beautiful Villa Campolieto, a masterpiece by 18th-century architect Luigi Vanvitelli, will stage next year a special exhibition of Herculaneum’s food, organic goods, and cooking utensils. In the meantime, Portici itself is playing host to a wealth of wood discovered at the site.

The seaside town of Herculaneum was a favoured resort of senators and other wealthy Romans. With about 5,000 inhabitants, it was much smaller than Pompeii, and its ruins differ in one crucial aspect. Pompeii was covered in pumice, which let in air and allowed objects to rot. Herculaneum, on the other hand, was closer to Mount Vesuvius and when, after the initial explosion, the volcanic column collapsed, the town was hit by a wave of 500°C volcanic mud that carbonised artefacts and sealed them tight as it hardened into rock. The whole city was buried beneath almost 20m-high mounds created by the pyroclastic flow. Rooftops were ripped off, some furniture was scattered, and two-storey houses disappeared underground.

above Wooden purse with carved decoration, from the House of the Double Atrium, 1st century AD. Size: 13.3 x 4.7cm
Wooden purse with carved decoration, from the House of the Double Atrium, 1st century AD. Size: 13.3 x 4.7cm

It is a curious experience to walk through the excavated ruins, far below the modern houses that surround them. The tall walls of some of the ancient Roman houses still boast wooden doors, wooden balconies, and window frames, which – thanks to painstaking restoration work – look more contemporary than 2,000 years old. There is a striking continuity between the ancient city and the new one built above it, as if they were one. Inside, the houses are well-appointed with their original magnificent wall paintings and marble furnishings in place. Amazingly, sliding wooden doors, complete with their wooden nails, can still move on their grooves.

above Lararium in the shape of a Corinthian temple, from the House of the Black Hall, 1st century AD. Size: 100 x 100cm
Lararium in the shape of a Corinthian temple, from the House of the Black Hall, 1st century AD. Size: 100 x 100cm

The exceptional survival of this great number and great variety of wooden objects at Herculaneum – a rare occurrence in the Roman world – is the focus of a comprehensive exhibition at Portici, produced by the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum with assistance from the Packard Humanities Institute: Materia: the wood that did not burn in Herculaneum (materia, in Latin, can mean matter, material, and, more specifically, timbers). It considers, too, how restoration and preservation of the wood found in Herculaneum presents formidable challenges not just in protecting the exposed carbonised beams attached to buildings against decay, but also in reconstituting the internal tissue of non-carbonised wooden objects, like the claw-shaped foot of a table, that was weakened by the moisture of the surroundings it was trapped within.

above Wooden rocking cradle from the House of Marcus Pilius Primigenius Granianus, 1st century AD. Size: 49 x 81cm
Wooden rocking cradle from the House of Marcus Pilius Primigenius Granianus, 1st century AD. Size: 49 x 81cm

Many recent discoveries are presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition, the most spectacular of these being the ceiling from the House of the Telephus Relief. The vast range of rare wooden objects also includes a wooden change purse engraved with an ornate scrolling design and a bed complete with three patterned raised sides. There are cupboards too, and a small dresser whose doors still open on ivory hinges. The wooden objects were not just utilitarian or decorative: there could also be a religious side, as reflected by a beautifully proportioned wooden lararium shaped like a miniature temple. This small shrine to the household gods contained a statuette of Hercules, the legendary founder of Herculaneum, which was named after him.

Francesco Sirano, director of the Archaeological Park, describes wood as a more intimate material, when compared to the monumentality and often public nature of marble and stone. It allows us to see how people interacted with and around these objects in their everyday lives. They are objects like those we have in our homes today. Perhaps most touching of the everyday objects that have survived is a carefully restored child’s cot made of oak which, with a gentle push, still rocks. When it was first found, the skeleton of a baby was lying on a little mattress inside it, according to Domenico Camardo, an archaeologist with the Herculaneum Conservation Project. The skeletons of four adults were found in the same room.

below Detail of a stool with an inlaid star motif achieved by using different woods, 1st century AD. Findspot unknown. Size: 42 x 49cm
Detail of a stool with an inlaid star motif achieved by using different woods, 1st century AD. Findspot unknown. Size: 42 x 49cm

The overall design of the furniture is surprisingly modern and practical, yet refined: a good example is an elegant stool adorned with an inlaid star-shaped motif, obtained from different kinds of light and dark timber, found in the House of the Double Atrium. More elaborate furniture was discovered together with marble statues in 2007, during the so-called ‘new excavations’ of the Villa of the Papyri, inside what must have been a grandiose room overlooking the sea. Named after its library of almost 2,000 papyrus scrolls, the villa on the outskirts of Herculaneum was first discovered in 1750. Scholars believe the villa belonged to the senator Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father of Julius Caesar’s first wife, and it has since served as the model for the Getty Villa in Malibu.

Ivory plaque from the leg of a small table, depicting a dancer. From the
Villa of the Papyri, 1st century AD.
Size: 47 x 6 x 2.5cm

It was certainly one of the most luxurious villas in Herculaneum, with its furnishings including outstanding wall paintings, bronze and marble statuary – altogether the largest collection of Greek and Roman sculpture discovered in a single building – and its magnificent views of the coastline. In a panoramic room with steps leading to a swimming pool and a private beach, a marble statue of Demeter and a marble head of an Amazon were found, along with eight wooden fragments, which – once they had been carefully restored – turned out to be remarkable. They were parts of legs for tables and tripods made out of ash wood (Fraxinus excelsior) and covered with thin ivory reliefs. These ivory carvings represent dancers and scenes of offerings to Priapus, the god of fertility and of vegetation. Elsewhere, bronze fittings were used to embellish other furniture – as seen in the beautiful bust of the Phrygian god of vegetation, Attis, found in Herculaneum’s palaestra (gymnasium).

Wood was a crucial material for boats and the commercial life of the seaside town. A small wooden boat is set as if immersed in water in the exhibition. With a vertical winch and straight bow nearby, this display highlights the importance of the debris found in the harbour of ancient Herculaneum. There, excavations in the 1980s and 1990s unearthed a large boat, measuring 10m long and 2.2m wide. It had been covered by the beams and furniture of the houses that fell from the cliff above the beach. Well-preserved skeletons of roughly 300 people who had perished while seeking shelter from the eruption inside brick boathouses and sheds were also uncovered. The victims had been incinerated by the pyroclastic surges at such a high temperature that their bodies were quickly vaporised, leaving their skeletons. Along the shoreline, they might have hoped to be rescued by boat, and were carrying with them some jewellery, coins, and wooden purses.

Ivory plaque from the leg of a small tripod, showing a small Cupid dressed like the god Attis and gathering pine cones. From the Villa of the Papyri, 1st century AD.
Size: 57.5 x 12 x 5.5cm

Wooden boats have survived more often than other Roman wooden artefacts. Boats of various shapes have been discovered at different locations around Italy. Among the most famous are the two huge 1st-century AD pleasure boats of Emperor Caligula recovered from the waters of Lake Nemi, near Rome, in the 1930s. They were unfortunately destroyed in 1944, during the Second World War, but the bronze fittings that had been brought to light from the 1890s are still on display in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome. More numerous are the remarkable discoveries from Pisa. In 1998, during works near the city’s San Rossore train station, 30 ships emerged in an exceptional state of preservation, with their cargoes of commercial products intact, as well as many tools, ropes, and baskets. They had sunk during the many floods that occurred in Pisa between the 2nd century BC and the 7th century AD.

In Rome, 24 unusually well-preserved timber planks were discovered during the construction of a new subway line between 2014 and 2016. These were not from a boat, but the foundations of a building located under the gardens of Via Sannio. The planks came from a portico leading to the entrance of a richly decorated mansion. Such exceptional finds have provided researchers with information on just how far Rome would reach for construction materials. Dendrochronology has helped to locate when and where the planks came from. The wood was cut in the Jura mountains in eastern France, some 1,000km away from Rome. Eight of 13 samples analysed contained sapwood that allowed researchers to conclude the trees must have been felled sometime between AD 40 and 60, and in the same place. According to the historian Pliny the Elder (who set sail to rescue friends during the eruption of Vesuvius, only to be killed), deforestation occurred in much of Rome’s conquered lands, forcing administrators to send troops further and further out in search of timber. This continued until Emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) set protective laws in place to curb deforestation in Lebanon, famed for its cedar trees, that threatened Roman shipbuilding. The need for wood was so great that in the reliefs on Trajan’s Column, commemorating the emperor’s drive for conquest, we see Roman soldiers felling trees and cutting wood in faraway Dacia, present-day Romania.

above Bronze appliqué for a piece of furniture with the bust of the god Attis, from the Palaestra, Insula Orientalis II, 1st century AD. Size:16 x 11cm
Bronze appliqué for a piece of furniture with the bust of the god Attis, from the Palaestra, Insula Orientalis II, 1st century AD. Size:16 x 11cm

Back in Herculaneum, the surviving wealth of wood used in the building of the city is extraordinary. In addition to wooden roofs, passageways, balconies, stairs, and partitions, solid beams were used for an ingenious but economic building technology that consists of a wooden frame filled by pebbles and larger stones. This was a cheap and effective way to construct apartment buildings – the House of the Opus Craticium for one – with several floors for the middle- and lower-class citizens of the town.

One of the most important discoveries in Herculaneum in recent decades came in 2009 and 2010, when the collapsed wooden roof and sections of the coffered ceiling from the House of the Telephus Relief were recovered from a buried beach. The eruption had scattered them, hurtling them down from the house named after a marble relief in one of its main rooms. The sections of the painted ceiling are on view in the exhibition, as is a very effective reproduction of the ceiling, with its coloured patterns, and of the room it once crowned, at a reduced scale.

top A painted panel from the coffered ceiling of the House of the Telephus Relief, 1st century AD. Size: 74 x 61cm above Traces of Egyptian blue paint are visible in this fragment of the coffered ceiling of the House of the Telephus Relief, decorated with geometric motifs, 1st century AD. Size: 15 x 76cm
A painted panel from the coffered ceiling of the House of the Telephus Relief, 1st century AD. Size: 74 x 61cm

Not only was the material evidence significant for understanding wooden roofing systems in the Roman world, but the House of the Telephus Relief find also gives an early example of the type of coffered ceiling that would become standard for churches and palaces centuries later in the Italian Renaissance. Analysis of the woods used in the ceiling (which were not carbonised) are still to be fully published, but it is known already that pine, silver fir, and juniper wood were preferred. The complexity of the overall arrangement was probably accomplished by an expert master carpenter (lignarius) cutting individual pieces in a local workshop, before they were moved to the villa to be set in place and covered with a polychrome varnish, with motifs in relief gilded. Researchers have identified marks on the wood made by the surviving tools that match those seen on the wall paintings of Pompeii. In the strong light of the Mediterranean sun reflected by the sea, the vivid colours of the coffered ceiling – green, blue, red, and white – would have matched those of the painted walls and of the coloured marbles of the floor, creating a dazzling optical effect.

Traces of Egyptian blue paint are visible in this fragment of the coffered ceiling of the House of the Telephus Relief, decorated with geometric motifs, 1st century AD. Size: 15 x 76cm