Some of the greatest discoveries pulled from the ruins of the ancient Vesuvian town of Herculaneum have been reunited under one roof for the first time for a major new exhibition that opens here today.
Statues, skeletons, artefacts and textiles go on show from the small seaside town south of Naples, which was destroyed in the same eruption that buried Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD.
''It's an extraordinary collection of 150 works that restores to the world the richest existing testimony of the classical age,'' said Campania President Antonio Bassolino at the show's inauguration.
While Pompeii was covered by hot ash and lava, its less famous neighbour disappeared under an avalanche of molten rock, which mingled with mud and earth and solidified, allowing fragile organic matter like wood, fabrics, wax tablets and papyrus rolls to survive.
Archaeologists began digging at the site at the beginning of the 1700s and continue to make discoveries today. Among the highlights of the show are sacks, little bags, and pieces of material thought to have belonged to tunics and cloaks that were dug from the town and which form part of the museum's little-known collection of 180 ancient Roman fabrics - the largest in the world.
On display for the first time ever is fabric from a mass of organic material discovered in July 2007 on what was once the terrace of a large thermal bath complex. A fragment of cloth made from hemp was among the material, discovered alongside a leather bag, carbonised wood belonging to a boat and a fishing net with lead weights.
The biggest crowd-puller is likely to be the skeletons of ancient Romans in the act of fleeing the town - one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries of the last few decades.
Men, women and children were fleeing to the ancient beach when the first volcanic surge hit.
While at Pompeii bodies decomposed in the ash (allowing archaeologists to make plaster casts of the spaces left by the bodies), Herculaneum's solidified mud preserved the skeletons intact, providing a rare treat for researchers because of how frequently ancient Romans cremated their dead.
The exhibition is divided into three sections, focusing first on the magnificent statues of gods, heroes and emperors found among the ruins.
The second section is dedicated to the noble Herculaneum families such as that of the proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus, one of the town's main benefactors, and showcases many statues found at the Villa of the Papyri.
The villa, the largest and most sumptuous found outside Rome, is thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father of Calpurnia, Julius Caesar's wife.
Only partially excavated, the villa has so far yielded 1,800 papyri, half of which have been deciphered to reveal Epicurean philosophy, and some experts say there may still be lost literary treasures of antiquity hidden in the ruins.
In the third section, the skeletons of fleeing townspeople are on show with other objects putting the daily life of the common people under the microscope, while fabrics go on display in the final section.
Herculaneum: Three Centuries of Discoveries runs at the Naples Archaeological Museum until April 2009.