Why Archaeologists Virtually Reconstructed an Ancient House in Pompeii

The team hopes to simulate how visitors would have experienced the space and gain a stronger understanding of the motivation behind Roman designs

Virtual reality model of a villa in Pompeii
“[T]his study show[s] how the owner of the house stimulated the visitor’s senses to convey a message about its power and wealth,” says co-author Danilo M. Campanaro in a statement. Antiquity, 2022

Researchers in Sweden are using virtual reality (VR) to envision what a lavishly decorated home in Pompeii might have looked like before its destruction in 79 C.E., reports Ariel David for Haaretz. As Danilo M. Campanaro and Giacomo Landeschi, both archaeologists at Lund University, write in the journal Antiquity, the ongoing project seeks to shed light on Roman architectural practices by showing how ancient visitors would have experienced the estate.

To create the VR model of the so-called House of the Epigrams, the duo drew on data from Lund’s Swedish Pompeii Project, which “uses drones and laser scanners to map an entire neighborhood in the ancient city,” per Sarah Cascone of Artnet. The archaeologists then plugged their VR recreation into the video game engine Unity, which also hosts Pokémon Go.

Discovered in the 1870s, the House of Epigrams derives its name from the mythical frescoes and inscriptions that adorn its walls. Researchers hypothesize that the home belonged to a man named Lucius Valerius Flaccus, whose signet ring was found in the ruins.

VR view of villa
The House of Epigrams derives its name from the mythical frescoes and inscriptions that adorn its walls. Antiquity, 2022

The domus, or house, was clearly the residence of an important patrician family. According to Haaretz, excavations at the site have yielded around 160 domestic artifacts, including jewelry, bronze and clay lamps, a set of silverware, and a Pan flute. Standing two stories tall, the building was designed to impress.

“Work and daily activities were intermingled during the day,” says Campanaro in a statement. “The house communicated to people about the personal power and status of the owner and his family.”

Campanaro and Landeschi wanted to figure out how the house’s impressive design functioned—in other words, how visitors would have seen and interacted with it. The co-authors simulated this experience by asking volunteers to “walk” through the house under two different lighting scenarios: dawn on the winter solstice or noon on the summer solstice. To map these volunteers’ “visual impressions,” in the words of ARTnews’ Shanti Escalante-De Mattei, the pair recorded three data points with eye-tracking technology: the head position of the user (gaze), what users’ eyes focused on when relatively still (fixation) and the duration of each session (event).

The Antiquity study outlines the researchers’ methodology but leaves the specific results of their study largely unaddressed. Campanaro and Landeschi plan to offer a more detailed analysis in an upcoming paper, but for now, they simply tell Haaretz that the best decorations, paintings and architecture were reserved for areas of the home that were only accessible to the owner’s closest friends and family.

“[T]his study show[s] how the owner of the house stimulated the visitor’s senses to convey a message about its power and wealth,” says Campanaro in the statement.

Eventually, the team’s findings may add to the list of architectural techniques used in Roman home design. Per the statement, previous research has shown that some ancient homeowners used angled walls and raised floors to make their houses’ interior look larger to passersby peering through the front door. Next, the researchers say they might expand the VR experience to incorporate simulated smell and sound.

“VR is often used to improve the visitor experience at a museum or an archaeological site,” Landeschi tells Haaretz. “This is a very noble goal, but we wanted to show that together with other technologies it can be used as a research tool rather than just an educational tool.”