Books: The Long Sleep

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HERCULANEUM by Joseph Jay Deiss. 174 pages. Thomas Y. Crowell. $6.95.

In the furnace room of Herculane-um's suburban baths, the cordwood is stacked, ready to fuel a fire that has been cold for nearly 20 centuries. On the wall of a snack bar, some graffito artist has daubed a phallus and the words MA(N)SVETA TENE (Handle with Care). In a cereal and wine shop, jars brimful of beans and, chickpeas await the next customer. At a street crossing, the inscription on a pillar warns litterbugs that they can be jailed or fined.

Time to Flee. To see such sights today in Herculaneum, writes Joseph Deiss, an amateur archaeologist and vice-director of the American Academy in Rome, is to "walk 2,000 years into the past." The world is more familiar with what happened to neighboring Pompeii on the same day that Herculaneum died; erupting on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, Vesuvius buried Pompeii in a sudden fiery rain of stone and ash, entombing nearly one-tenth of its 20,000 citizens and inflicting terrible damage on the city. Herculaneum, however, was more fortunate. Granted time by the wind, which blew west toward Pompeii, nearly all of Herculaneum's 5,000 inhabitants were able to flee before the wall of hot lava and mud rolled down Vesuvius' flank, so gently that it left eggshells on some lunch tables. The town vanished, almost intact, to a depth of 65 to 85 feet.

Hardening into rock, the lava became Herculaneum's unmarked tomb. The town's very location was lost until 1709, when monks in Resina, a city superimposed by chance on Herculaneum's grave, uncovered some marble theater seats while sinking a well. Other diggers plundered Herculaneum of everything their tunnels exposed. "It is one of the tragic ironies of human endeavor," writes Deiss, "that the suffocating mud did less damage to Herculaneum than the earliest excavators."

Even so, latter-day archaeologists have exposed four city blocks in so remarkable a state of preservation that its citizens might have left only yesterday: wooden doors still swinging on their hinges, a bronze water valve that works, unmelted wax tablets, cracked walnuts in a jar, coils of rope, cut flowers, glass jars, needles, thumbtacks, a dish of garlic, chicken bones left over from someone's last meal.

Only the Chin. Deiss's book discloses another archaeological irony. "Of the whole face of Herculaneum," he writes, "we have seen thus far only the chin." Systematic excavation has been halted since before the war. Most of Herculaneum still sleeps beneath millions of tons of volcanic stone; all of the forum, for instance, the heart of every Roman town, is completely enshrouded. "It seems incredible," Deiss concludes, "to discover a buried treasure and not dig it up."