Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/245

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233
HOW WAS HERCULANEUM DESTROYED?

Pompeii in the year 63, under Nero, did Herculaneum no injury; so that there a part of the buildings anterior to the empire, and houses of earlier style, which implies purer taste, must have been preserved. This conclusion is strengthened at the present day by the beauty of those objects collected at Herculaneum, and will be settled beyond question whenever the city itself shall be restored to light.

What was the fate of Herculaneum during the eruption of a. d. 79? What special phenomena were displayed on that side of Vesuvius? What causes buried a nourishing city in an instant out of sight of the inhabited world? It has been proved that Pompeii suffered an interment so incomplete that after a few days its inhabitants could recognize their dwellings, could encamp above and clear them out; Herculaneum, on the contrary, was buried so deep that the next day it was impossible to trace a vestige of it. The ready answer to all these questions usually is: "Lava worked all the ruin. Herculaneum was swallowed up under eighty feet of lava. If works of art, bronzes and pictures have been miraculously preserved, it was due to the impenetrable shield of lava, yielding only to a cutting tool, that protected them from the ravages of time." The explanation is tempting. Fancy pictures waves of fire rolling upon the city, rising like the tidal swell, surging in through doors and windows, sweeping around and moulding every thing, then slowly cooling, and preserving for posterity treasures that labor must unveil, repaid by their recovery in unharmed beauty.

This is really the opinion that all Europe holds, and even at Naples almost all visitors of Herculaneum declare that they have touched the lava with their own hands; and, in books written on the Vesuvian cities, more than one traveller affirms as positively that the difficulty of cutting the lava presents the chief obstacle to the disinterment of Herculaneum. How can one venture to meet such convictions by asserting that water, not fire, overwhelmed Herculaneum; that it was not a torrent of glowing lava, but a flood of mud and wet ashes that filled the city? How uproot a prepossession so deep that the works of geologists and savants have failed to shake it? Dufrénoy proved that water alone swept over Herculaneum heaps of scoria and pumice crumbled from La Somma; Dyer, Overbeck, Ernst Breton, and others, have affirmed in various languages, to no purpose, that nothing but ashes, wet to paste and hardened by pressure, covered over Herculaneum: no one heeded them, and the blame continues to be thrown on the lava, which makes excavation so costly and laborious.

But every one knows the nature and effects of lava. Lava is an incandescent mass, of so high temperature as to absorb and melt all fusible bodies; forced out from the fissures of the crater by irresistible expansive power, this mass rolls on in a fiery river, burning up every thing in its path; cooling slowly, it grows as hard as porphyry or adamant. Now, I appeal to the recollection of all who have ascended