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A beach buried by the Mount Vesuvius eruption 2,000 years ago just reopened

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It was late into the night when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago sent volcanic material over the beach at the ancient city of Herculaneum, where hundreds of men, women and children — and even a soldier — huddled in and around stone boat houses, awaiting rescuers who would never arrive.

The A.D. 79 volcanic eruption had buried the seaside and left the beach out of reach to visitors, until now — when newly-completed restoration works mean visitors can set foot on the beach, as it appeared before the disaster, for the first time.

The restoration of the beach allows people to see the site “from the same position” as “the ancient Roman people,” Francesco Sirano, the director of the Herculaneum archaeological park, said in an interview Thursday. “The visitors have to go down through a tunnel … and it’s like we go back two thousand years, and then suddenly you have the beach.”

While Herculaneum is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Pompeii, it was also destroyed by Mount Vesuvius — and the beach area is known for holding the remains of at least 330 people who died there, sheltering in the boat houses in hope of being rescued. Those remains, discovered in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, were mostly related women, children and babies, along with their dogs and sheep, while adults and young men were thought to have perished on the beach itself, according to researchers.

Sirano said the eruption had covered Herculaneum in “an enormous amount of volcanic materials.” The beach area eventually became flooded, meaning that visitors could only access the boathouses and the remains by traveling on “a suspended pathway” over the water.

Now thanks to restoration works by the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Packard Humanities Institute, visitors to the site could step on the beach again for the first time, he added. The beach was opened to the public on Wednesday.

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The ancient beach had distinctive, volcanic black sand — but the local authorities decided against using that in the reconstruction, as sand would cause accessibility issues for wheelchair users, Sirano said. Instead, they used a dark material that was similar in color to re-create the scene as it would have appeared to the ancient residents.

“If we look towards 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” ancient Roman residents would have felt, Sirano said in a news release from the Italian Ministry of Culture, describing the beach as “an extraordinary and unique place in the world.”

The 330 people whose remains were found at the site are believed to have made up five percent of the ancient city’s population, Sirano said, adding that organic materials such as wood and food had been discovered at the site.

Pompeii, around eight miles to the south, was largely buried by volcanic ash, according to UNESCO, which said they were the only ruins of Roman cities “preserved in such an exceptional way and have no parallels in integrity and extent in the world.”

Both sites “have been progressively excavated and made accessible to the public since the mid-18th century,” UNESCO says, although much of the remains of Herculaneum is under the modern-day town and have only been explored through tunnels from the 1700s.

The eruption may have ended life in the two ancient cities, but new findings from the area continue to fascinate researchers and visitors alike.

Earlier this year, archaeologists announced the discovery of a banquet room in Pompeii, which was decorated with beautiful frescoes of mythological characters inspired by the Trojan War.

In 2021, archaeologists found the remains of a man between the ages of 40 and 45 who was found with his belongings and dubbed the “last fugitive of Herculaneum.”

A year earlier, Italian researchers said the heat of the eruption was so hot that it turned the brain of one victim, who died alone, to glass, as The Washington Post previously reported.

Technology has also played a role in bringing the forgotten world back to life: Last year a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was awarded $40,000 after he developed an AI program that was able to decipher parts of an ancient scroll that was burned and buried in the eruption.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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