Treasure hunting or archaeology: when did they start to make a difference?

The answer is: in 1711.

In that year, workers digging a private owner’s well in the small town of Resina near Naples came across marble. The owner of the well offered it to the French prince Emmanuel Maurice of Elbeuf, who was building a villa in nearby Portici. Elbeuf, recognizing the interest of the finds, bought the area and continued digging. And soon, largely intact marble statues were discovered in the deep tufa at the bottom of the well, including three draped women. These three sculptures, which heralded the discovery of ancient Herculaneum, are known today as the Great and Little Women of Herculaneum.

At first, the excavation of these statues was kept secret from the ruling Austrian authorities, in whose service Elbeuf was. Elbeuf ordered them to be put aside wrapped in cloths. Nevertheless, the discovery soon became known. French nobles who came from the same circles as Elbeuf, such as the art collector Count Caylus, rushed to Naples.

And the find in the buried theater of Herculaneum eventually triggered extensive excavations in the city sunken deep beneath Vesuvius …

The statues became to be the beginning of archaeology…

The first excavations

The first to initiate real excavations was the Bourbon ruler of Naples, who had replaced the Austrians and later became king of Spain: Charles III. He entrusted the exploration to his military subordinate Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. Later he was replaced by the Swiss Karl Weber. For this reason, the first maps of Herculaneum are written in Spanish.

Herculaneum was identified thanks to an inscription found in the ruins of the theater. In itself, it was however already known that Herculaneum had been located on the coast.

The ancient city had been buried under a layer of six waves of volcanic debris and mud by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Renaissance scholars plotted it on a map below the summit of Vesuvius as early as the 1500s. Thir map was certainly based on ancient maps from Roman times or artifacts. Sculptures of Roman armor had been displayed in the marketplace of Resina even before the discovery of the three women of Herculaneum.

Map of Campania, Girolamo Mocetto, 1514

But the first exploration of Herculaneum was then motivated by the search for ancient treasures to decorate the royal collections of the Bourbon monarch Charles III.

The earliest tunnels crossed the orchestra of the theater without direction or plan. Only later tunnels were then dug in an orderly fashion along the seating area. This was due not only to the desire for a better knowledge of the city, but also to the interest of stability, since some of the tunnels collapsed and the excavators working there died. Moreover, treasure hunters got lost in their own tunnels and dug several times in the same place.

Plan of the theater of Herculaneum, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, 1739

It was not until later that Karl Weber produced maps that for the first time made sites and floor plans traceable. He guarded and hid these maps, knowing well that he would be envied. He was not even granted a place on the royal commission that oversaw the treasure hunt. Today, the world owes Weber archaeology and one of its most precious finds, Herculaneum.

It was only when news of Herculaneum spread to the European courts and foreign scholars also tried to publish reports of the jealously guarded finds in the region that Weber received support.

In themselves, these scholars were prevented from entering because of fears of robbery and theft. Nevertheless, some foreigners made it to the excavations. They were soon shocked by the conditions they saw. Destroyed frescoes, melted artifacts and work being executed in a tunnel situation almost unbearable for health.

In 1764, the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann published an open letter denouncing the shabby and clandestine excavations. Since the Queen of Naples was a Saxon princess and daughter of August the Strong, in whose environment Winckelmann had worked and on whose behalf he came, his letter addressed to August carried weight.

Improvements were made, and Herculaneum eventually became the first model for excavating complex urban sites and provided the impetus for the development of modern archaeology.

The women of Herculaneum thus officially became the first finds of archaeology ever.

The women of Herculaneum

When the three statues of the women were discovered, they were lifted through a well shaft that led to the remains of the Roman theater buried 30 meters below the street level of today’s Ercolano (then Resina). They probably once adorned the theater’s impressive two-story facade, along with other sculptures of mythological and historical figures.

The theater at Herculaneum was the first Roman theater to be found largely intact. Its magnificent arcades and polychrome murals influenced generations of architects, artists and set designers from then on.

Prince Elbeuf, whose workers had discovered the women of Herculaneum, sent the sculptures however as a gift to Prince Eugene of Savoy in Vienna, his patron and a Frenchman, like him. The earliest images of the women of Herculaneum therefore show them among the exotic animals Eugene kept in his gardens at the Belvedere.

After Eugene’s death in 1736, however, they came into the possession of August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland and brother of the Neapolitan queen. The statues came to the Royal Collection of Classical Antiquities in Dresden, which was inspired by Winckelmann. Since the end of the 19th century, therefore, the Women of Herculaneum have been in the Albertinum and form the core of the Dresden Collection of Classical Antiquities, where they can be seen since then.

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