The Preservation of Wood in Herculaneum

Herculaneum was an ancient Roman city that resides in modern day Ercolano in the region of Campania.

At one time in history, it was lost with neighboring cities Pompeii, Stabiae, Boscoreale, and Oplontis after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed it in AD 79. However, while Pompeii was buried under ash and pumice from the volcanic eruption, Herculaneum was affected by the volcanic pyroclastic flows. As a result, wooden objects have been preserved till date.

How Herculaneum’s Wood Withstood Time

HerculaneumWoodPreservationDownsizeThe extreme high temperatures of the volcanic materials caused different wooden elements to carbonize, conserving them for centuries later. However, during the state-sponsored Bourbon Excavations between 1784 and 1815, many structures were destroyed due to inadequate conservation methods. A few days after they were discovered, the pieces would crumble during the drying process. It was not until 1927 when Amedeo Maiuri started began open-air investigations that a recovery system was found.

Currently, archeologists resort to consolidating carbonized wooden items with paraffin, preventing contraction induced by drying. Strips of modern wood are used to support the structures while coal dust and antique wood are combined to fill the gaps created by missing parts. On the other hand, salvaging roof beams and flat arches requires using I-beams or reinforced concrete, which is held by metallic nets that anchor carbonized wood layers.

Later, by 1982, the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome adopted other techniques for preserving wood. One of these was used on a 10-meter long Roman boat that was discovered on the beach. To protect it from the same fate of previously damaged wooden artifacts, archeologists covered it with silicone and closed it in a fiberglass shell containing ethylene silicate.

Prominent Wooden Artifacts Available Today

The Herculaneum Conservation Project continues to uncover different artifacts from the area, including massive wooden beams, joists and rafters. Unlike most carbonized wooden items, most of these were smashed into wet sand and preserved by the pyroclastic flows hardened into air-tight rock. Visitors can view some of these through the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit at the British Museum. The museum’s most prized Herculaneum wooden artifact is a wooden cradle with a bowed base, which was discovered with the remains of a baby wrapped in what is assumed to be a woolen blanket.

Other artifacts – such as wooden beds, tables, ‘laràriums’ and furniture – can be seen in the Herculaneum ruins in Naples. With the help of a guide, visitors to the area can receive a tour of the perfectly preserved city. However, this may not be a good idea for the weak hearted since a considerable number of skeletons belonging to the 4,000 people inhabiting this fishing town can still be seen.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

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