An Ancient Beach Buried by Mount Vesuvius’ Eruption Is Now Open to the Public

In the seaside resort town of Herculaneum, the beach is the final resting place of more than 330 residents who tried to flee

Archaeological site at Herculaneum
Archaeologists continue to excavate Herculaneum, a seaside resort town devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Marco Cantile / LightRocket via Getty Images

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., it famously smothered the ancient city of Pompeii with a thick layer of volcanic rock and ash. The disaster also devastated surrounding villages, including a small seaside resort town called Herculaneum.

Now, 2,000 years later, the ancient Herculaneum beach has reopened to the public. As of Wednesday, visitors can explore the beach on foot or via wheelchair. While the site was once blanketed with volcanic black sand, restorers opted to cover it with a more accessible material in a similar dark color.

Visitors can see the beach “from the same position” as the Romans, Francesco Sirano, director of the Herculaneum archaeological park, tells the Washington Post’s Victoria Bisset. “The visitors have to go down through a tunnel … and it’s like we go back 2,000 years, and then suddenly you have the beach.”

The beach is a solemn destination. It’s the final resting place of at least 330 individuals who were killed while trying to flee two millennia ago. Residents of Herculaneum could see the eruption in the distance, and many tried to escape.

Some men, women, children, dogs and sheep ran to the beach in hopes of being rescued by a “civil protection force” led by Pliny the Elder, the “admiral and illustrious Roman scholar,” as CNN’s Sharon Braithwaite writes. The bodies of women, children and animals were primarily found in boat houses, while the young men’s remains were found mostly on the beach itself.

Though some speculated that the victims of Vesuvius died instantly from exposure to extreme heat, a 2020 study of skeletons found in the boat houses suggested the victims suffocated from toxic fumes.

In 2021, researchers made another important Herculaneum discovery on the beach: the skeleton of a man in his mid-40s who was carrying a satchel, likely full of his most prized possessions. The man was steps from the sea when a wooden beam fell and likely crushed his skull.

For visitors, walking on the beach may help bring the full weight of the tragedy into focus.

“If we look toward where the sea once was, we become modern explorers of the immense blanket of volcanic flow that covered the city in a few hours, almost sharing the sense of total annihilation,” says Sirano, per the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida.

Excavations are ongoing at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as at other nearby sites. During recent digs, archaeologists have found a shrine with rare blue walls, children’s graffiti and a fresco depicting flatbread, among many other discoveries.

“Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis—we are working on many projects,” Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, tells CNN. “There are construction sites that are active like never before and are revealing new treasures, which fuel the activity of scholars.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.