Preserving the experience of dining in ancient Pompeii

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2021. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more! This week we’re looking at mapping the physical world.

As a PhD student in Art and Architectural History, Janet Dunkelbarger has spent over a decade researching the relationship between people and space. Before the COVID pandemic she spent her summers in Italy, studying and photographing the ruins of Pompeii to understand how the inhabitants used their gardens for dining. In 2020-2021, as a Scholars’ Lab DH Graduate Fellow, Dunkelbarger incorporated virtual reality (VR) into her dissertation to create 3D reconstructions for an immersive experience. The 3D models and VR worlds allow Dunkelbarger to contribute to her scholarship and pedagogical goals and help record the physical remains and preserve the experience of the existing environment. But she was also able to revisit the archaeological site from Virginia, an important advantage in light of COVID.

VR re-creation overlooking an ancient building with white walls forming rooms unroofed and others covered with red rooftiles, all against a background of fields, hills, and sky.

Working with Shayne Brandon from the UVA Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) and a team based in the Scholars’ Lab — Arin Bennett, Information Visualization Specialist; Will Rourk, 3D Data and Content Specialist; and Geospatial Consultant Drew MacQueen — Dunkelbarger learned about photogrammetry, a technology that uses photography to produce 3D models made with reliable measurements, and world building in virtual reality. In Dunkelbarger’s project, approximately 4,000 photographs were stitched together to create the elements of garden architecture (dining couches, tables, water features, wall mosaics, and pergolas) in three dimensions.

Romans in antiquity often reclined to dine, leaning on their left elbow and leaving their right hand free (sitting was considered to be informal). Couches were frequently arranged in a U-shape with a table or fountain in the middle. The guests’ dining positions on the couches are thought to have been prescribed and based on social status, with the host and the guest of honor reclining next to each other at the lower right corner. With the 3D models and ancient environment reconstructed in VR, one can have a virtual, first-hand experience of the ancient garden dining space and adopt the perspective of each diner as they look out over the surrounding architecture, garden, and decorative elements (like wall paintings, sculptures, and water features).

Learning about virtual reality in a virtual setting presented some challenges, but also provided significant benefits. As the Library team helped to move Dunkelbarger forward with her research via Zoom meetings and in VR, they also helped her to feel connected. In a blog post Dunkelbarger credited her colleagues: “Not only was I able to learn and understand and progress with the technology and my project, but the time with my team was a key factor in my ability to cope with everything that has gone on this year.” Virtual reality was already an effective research tool, but during the pandemic it proved to be a lifeline to community.

Comments are closed.