DIY was all the rage in Pompeii
Sunday 25 April 1999
Far from indulging in wine, women and song, it appears that the average resident of Pompeii was, in fact, a house-proud, toga-clad version of New Man. Devoted to pouring his hard-earned savings into his house, he would expand his kitchen, build that loft extension - and even buy up the house next door. Remains uncovered recently suggest that home improvements were in progress right up to the point when Mount Vesuvius blew its top.
The findings, established by a team of Anglo-American archaeologists from several universities, are based on excavations at a property known as the House of Vestals. The owner is believed to have been a wealthy politician or merchant. A major earthquake several years earlier, which had damaged many buildings in the port, had not deterred him - presumably it was easier to get buildings and contents insurance in those days.
The archaeologists found six major phases of building work at the house, with several minor alterations in between. According to Fiona Robertson, a PhD student at Bradford University who took part in the excavations, the owner was clearly a DIY enthusiast who, if alive today, would happily spend his weekends driving between the garden centre and B&Q or Homebase. "A Roman ramp, which was uncovered at the back of the house, looks just like the sort of thing used to push wheelbarrows up nowadays," she said. "Rooms at the back of the house were clearly in the process of being renovated."
In an all-too-familiar tale, the owner had to replace and improve DIY attempts made by his predecessors up to 180 years before. "Around 100BC the house was expanded into neighbouring properties and early in the first century AD more money was poured in to carry out home improvements," she said. "They converted a kitchen into a living room or play room, added an extension, did some re-pointing and built a swimming pool in the garden - much the sort of thing people do today."
And did Pompeii man live amid the dust and debris or move out during the building work, giving free rein to the builders, only to blow his top, Vesuvius style, when the revised bill was wildly over the original estimate? The answer lies in the remains of snails in the house.
Snails are sensitive to small changes in temperature and preferred the open, damp conditions when the builders were in to the warmer atmosphere created when the family was at home. "As you go down different levels of excavations if you find no more than a few snails, it's reasonable to assume the family was living in the house at the time," Miss Robertson said. "But if you find a healthy population, there's a strong possibility the family had moved out while the builders were in." Romans were scrupulous with their house cleaning, explained Miss Robertson. "If they had lived in the house during the excavations they would have been cleaning up and sweeping away fungus and damp - the snails wouldn't have liked that."
The citizens of Pompeii were keen on DIY because houses were great status symbols. "Open space was at a premium," she said. "The Romans used their houses to do their entertaining. They would have fountains and mosaics in them depicting gardens to make them look bigger than they were. "This particular family had clearly come into a lot of money. They were building a swimming pool and other extensive work at the same time."
Experts think the people of Pompeii were so keen on DIY because the changing role of the port led to new roles for the buildings. "Pompeii was originally a sea-side resort and then became an important frontier town," said Miss Robertson. "As the empire expanded the frontier went further south and Pompeii became a far more attractive place to live as wealthy merchants funded lots of development."
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