The Cambridge-led Herculaneum Conservation Project is helping preserve this extraordinary Roman town for future generations and providing a model of best practice for archaeological sites throughout the world.

Raising its profile is as important as good management in ensuring Herculaneum's chances of survival

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

The results of this partnership are remarkable and there has been a very great improvement in the overall condition of the site

UNESCO

Herculaneum was overwhelmed by the same volcanic eruption of Vesuvius as the neighbouring city of Pompeii in AD 79. But while Pompeii has become a household name, Herculaneum is less well known.

Set up in 2001 thanks to the enthusiastic support of David Packard by the Packard Humanities Institute, the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP) has brought this extraordinary Roman town to public prominence.

Through an innovative mix of conservation, research and public outreach, the project – led by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill of the Faculty of Classics – has raised Herculaneum's profile, conserved the site and become a model of best practice.

In 2013, Wallace-Hadrill's BBC2 documentary The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum attracted some 2.7 million viewers. The project developed teaching materials now used by schools in Italy and Australia where, thanks to being on the New South Wales school curriculum, Pompeii-Herculaneum is studied by 11,000 Australian school children annually.

The same year, Wallace-Hadrill was involved in Pompeii and Herculaneum: Life and Death at the British Museum. The exhibition was screened live in schools across the UK and to cinema audiences in the USA and Canada.

And to top it all, in 2015 Wallace-Hadrill was immortalised in plastic in 'LEGO Pompeii' at the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum – in a nod to his TV work he can be spotted doing a piece to camera in Pompeii's Forum.

From crisis to conservation

Although destroyed at the same time as Pompeii, Herculaneum is different. Built on a smaller scale than its sprawling neighbour, Herculaneum affords an intimate insight into Roman urban society. And while Pompeii was covered by a shallower layer of ash and excavated over 200 years ago using pre-scientific techniques, Herculaneum was buried more deeply and excavated more recently, allowing archaeologists to study the organic materials – from wood to fossilised faeces – that have survived.

While working in Pompeii during the late 1990s, Wallace-Hadrill became increasingly concerned about the critical state of both sites. Caring for an archaeological site – which is decaying rapidly because it was never built to survive – is an immense challenge. But he realised that without prompt action, key parts of Herculaneum would be lost.

Out of crisis, the HCP was born and while the bulk of the project's work would be delivered by Italian personnel, outside input from Wallace-Hadrill was judged key to overcoming bureaucratic and legislative red tape, and building relationships with Herculaneum's modern inhabitants.

Local ownership

Since 2001, the project has focused on developing better conservation strategies for Herculaneum. Through conservation it has deepened our understanding of Roman urban life and helped engage the public, both locally and internationally.

Although the project is not driven by a research agenda, research is an integral byproduct of conservation. By looking at things more carefully – and intervening physically – conservation exposes new information. Digging a drain at Herculaneum, for example, uncovered a sewer full of human waste, giving archaeologists a rich insight into its inhabitants' diets.

Using this and other new finds, Wallace-Hadrill's 2011 book Herculaneum: Past and Future offers a fresh overview of Herculaneum's urban history and development.

As well as generating research, conservation at Herculaneum is intimately linked with outreach. Archaeological sites are often viewed as impediments to modern life. At Herculaneum, however, the project has showed that involving and informing visitors can create a sense of local ownership that will ensure the site is cared for in the future.