Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/247

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235
HOW WAS HERCULANEUM DESTROYED?

and thrown out by the Dead Sea, saturated in it with chloride of sodium? How is it that every thing proves their decomposition to come only from the effects of time? How has the wood kept its character and color in those parts pierced by spikes and nails, in other words, protected from dampness by iron rust? How do we find manuscripts written on the soft fibres of papyrus-reed, when lava must infallibly have consumed them, and dispersed their ashes like those of a sheet of paper thrown on burning coals? Why has this kind lava, in like manner, respected fruits, nuts, almonds, linen, silk, lamp-wicks found in hundreds, and so many very combustible articles which have merely turned black, when they usually vanish, without the least trace, in the feeblest flame?

This refutation by absurdity might be urged with multiplied arguments. Indeed, very slight reflection suffices to show that fire could not have played any part in the destruction of Herculaneum, and that if lava, the most terrible destroying agent next to lightning, had made its way into the city, we should scarcely recognize a few blackened stones, smashed bricks, and calcined marbles. But, to say all in a word, I state that on a late tour I examined the ground of Herculaneum, in the parts made accessible by excavation, with particular care. I could not find a square inch of lava! Every thing is ashes, nothing but ashes, and these ashes have been hardened by three agents—water, pressure, and time. It is exactly this hardness, which is not to be conceived of as very great, that has deceived visitors, particularly in the underground galleries dug out in exploring the theatre. The descent is by stairways damp with exudations from the streets of Portici; overhead is heard the rolling of vehicles; we pass through tunnels polished with rubbing; we see on the smoky arches the smudge of torches, collecting for centuries; we shudder at the appalling gloom, and seem buried in the bowels of the earth. In a word, the passage impresses the imagination as strange and awful, and we reassure ourselves perforce with the thought that these galleries are hewn in lava, and beyond danger of caving in; but a scratch of the nail on this supposed lava betrays the fact that it is friable and yielding, being-only hardened ashes. In one of these tunnels, which are pretty regularly cut out, the guides show the print of a human face. We wonder at the unchanging solidity of a substance which once so finely moulded the objects it surrounded. Still, if you try to cut with a knife, not into the impression itself, but into the parts next it, you are amazed to find that nothing is easier, and that it is all mere solidified ashes.

One street of Herculaneum, in the outskirts, on the side nearest the sea, has been regularly excavated, and several houses cleared out—that called the house of the skeleton, the house of Argus, some shops, a slave-prison, and others—all is in the open air, and one can walk as in the streets of Pompeii. The space thus disentombed is from 3,000 to 4,000 square yards, a large-enough area for observations of the