Saturday, 5 January 2013

A good recipe

Pompeii VI, 14, 20. House of Orpheus
Entrance, Photo by V. Vitale 2012
This was the first time I took hard measurements of an ancient building, so this experience was extremely useful (and exciting!) to me.
Here is a list of things that, according to what I have learnt, can give you a successful field experience: 

Permission: the House of Orpheus is actually closed to the public, so we asked for a permission to access and document the building. I am glad to say that, in spite of an easy prejudice, our permission was granted in a couple of weeks and we had no problems entering the site. I take this opportunity to thank Grete Stefani, Director of the Scavi, and all her staff for the kindness and efficiency.

A clever mate: I would also like to thank Dr. Faith Lawrence, from the King’s College Department of Digital Humanities, who kindly volunteered to assist me in the measuring operations. My final work owes a lot to her patience and precision in those days (not to mention the good company).

A sunny day (or, at least, a non rainy one): luckily, a part from some clouds in the afternoon, the light was not too bad for taking photographs.

A Code: as I discovered, transcribing measurements is not that easy. Not even if you want to annotate them on a pre-existing plan (method we used with the Temple of Isis but not with the House of Orpheus). Where would you put, for example, all the information connected to the hight of the elements? (doors, steps etc...)
You need to work out a code to register all the information. That’s why I am so happy Faith joined us. Not only she wrote the information quickly and correctly, but she also worked out on the spot a visual code simple enough to be still understandable weeks later when I actually started working on the model.

A hard covered black agenda: if you want to measure straight walls with an EDM (electronic distance measurer) you will soon find out that you have a problem! Obviously, the laser only works if it has a surface to fall on. So, my supervisor showed me that the best way to deal with this problem is to create a little extension of the wall that the laser can target. His black Moleskine perfectly served the purpose! 

House of Orpheus, Room 10
An example of the two layers of plaster
photo by V. Vitale 2012
Tolerance and flexibility: holding an EDM gives you the illusion of precision. Until you start using it. There is nothing wrong with the tool, of course. The problem is that you have to decide every 5 minutes WHAT are you actually measuring and if it is really relevant for your research. You simply cannot measure everything. The process is much more time consuming then I thought. For a big villa such as the House of Orpheus a whole day is not enough. So, you have to decide your priorities. For example, to my project, decorative elements were not so relevant because I was going to build a synthetic model.
The other major issue was dealing with the thickness of walls. Frescoes were painted on a quite thick layer of plaster of 4 or 5 cm. Furthermore, many rooms in the House of Orpheus have been re decorated. It means that a new layer had been applied on the previous one. Thus, we are talking of an extra thickness of 7-10 cm. (not to mention the plaster deformed by the exposure to the atmospherical elements). 

The point is that the plaster didn’t survive in all the rooms and, within the same room, it didn’t survive on all the walls. So, in more then few occasions, I had to decide if I wanted to measure the length of a wall with or without the remains of the plaster. Some other times I just couldn’t decide because the wall was entirely covered by or entirely devoid of the plaster layers.
I wanted to be as much consistent as possible and I decided, when I had the choice, to measure the dimensions WITH the plaster layers because I thought it was a better approximation of the dimensions of the spaces as they were perceived by people (which is my main interest in this case). However, it implies that a discrepancy of 7-10 cm is very likely to appear in many of my measurements. As I was not interested in such a level of precision for my present research, I believe my plan is still a very reliable starting point for the model. Moreover, I assume that the architects who drew the previous plans had to deal exactly with the same issue.

House of Orpheus, room 7
The Plaster Dilemma: where to target the EDM? To the surviving plaster bits or to the masonry?
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

A foresighted supervisor: taking hard measurements is something that you shouldn't do on your own. You need at least one more person to write things down (or hold your Moleskine when you use the laser measurer!). It is even better if a third person (let’s say your supervisor, for example) independently retake some of the measurements allowing you, days later, to double check your data. It is easy to get confused when you spend a whole day writing down numbers. A series of second measurements is a priceless back up.

A camera (possibly a good one): sometimes you have to model buildings that do not exist anymore. Sometimes you have to model buildings you’ve never seen with your eyes. Some other times you are lucky enough to be able to go on site and take loads of pictures. I took more than 300 and I thought they were enough. I was wrong: they are never enough! 
Pictures have been crucial for the drawing of the plan and the modelling. When I had a doubt, I went to check my pictures. I also took full advantage of both the contemporary and the historical pictures available on pompeiiinpictures and I definitely want to contribute to this very precious service myself. I will be more than happy to share my photographic documentation with all the archeologists and modellers who are interested in it.

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