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SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Herculaneum Uncovered

Airs Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Ariel view of the ruins of Herculaneum, a seaside town in Italy's Bay of Napl...

Credit: Courtesy of Francesco Cavaliere

Above: Ariel view of the ruins of Herculaneum, a seaside town in Italy's Bay of Naples. This program explores the ruins of Herculaneum, a city buried and frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

On August 24th, A.D. 79, the people of Herculaneum, a prosperous seaside town in Italy's Bay of Naples, watched in horror as Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling a boiling, churning column of gas and ash 10 miles high into the sky. They saw the wind carry the deadly cloud toward the neighboring city of Pompeii, where the hapless citizens suffered a slow and torturous death in the poisonous detritus. It was only a matter of time before Vesuvius would unleash its fury on Herculaneum, killing its citizens in an even more spectacular and gruesome way.


In recent years, the fabled, largely forgotten city of Herculaneum has been re-discovered and, today, archaeologists are scrambling to study and save the fragile site. The film paints a stunning picture of what life was like in the ancient town, and how people ultimately met their horrific deaths there.

"Ironically, Herculaneum's violent end ensured that the town was suspended in time, and it remains intact 2,000 years later," said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of "Secrets Of The Dead." "Unlike Pompeii -- whose fate was a slow burial by ash and pumice -- Herculaneum was engulfed by superheated pyroclastic flows of molten rock, mud and gas that actually caused people's heads to explode. Those flows transformed the living, breathing city of Herculaneum into an incredible time capsule that is even better preserved than Pompeii."

"Herculaneum Uncovered" looks at Herculaneum, past and present, from every conceivable angle -- via aerial views of the town and through the eyes of scientists as they examine such critical minutiae as fig seeds from some of the last meals consumed there before the volcano erupted. Actual footage of erupting volcanoes -- including the most recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 and pyroclastic flows from the Caribbean island of Montserrat in the 1990s -- helps illustrate the power and destructiveness of these cataclysmic events.

Video Excerpt: Secrets Of The Dead: Herculaneum Uncovered

This except from the Secrets of the Dead episode "Herculaneum Uncovered" shows the unearthing and cleaning of a rare painted marble bust that had been well-preserved for almost two thousand years by the Mount Vesuvius eruption which buried Pompeii and Herulaneum in 79 A.D. Also seen are some bronze works which still contain the beautifully detailed, inserted eyes which could be made of bone, copper and/or sometimes precious metals. Narrated by the inimitable Liev Schreiber.

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