Pompeii columelle
Why were columelle created?Peter Stewart/Flickr Creative commons

On the outskirts of Pompeii, hundreds of mysterious stelae (gravestones), shaped in a very unusual way, can be found. Known as columelle (from the Latin meaning 'small column'), they are rectangular standing stones topped with disks almost resembling human busts – and they have long puzzled archaeologists.

The city of Pompeii, best known for the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which buried it under ash, was incorporated into the Roman state in the early 1st century BCE, along with other cities of southern Campania (south of the Bay of Naples). This happened after a bitter Social War fought between Rome and its former allies in Italy, from 91 to 88 BCE.

Because columelle are so different to the kind of stelae that have been documented in Rome from the same period, archaeologists have previously argued that these gravestones must pre-date Roman times.

They have described them as objects that were unique to the funerary culture and belief system of Pompeii and its neighbours, saying that they were first created when these cities were independent from Rome.

However, analyses have revealed that the earliest known columelle were erected no earlier than the mid-1st century BCE, after Pompeii had already been conquered by Rome.

This paradox is intriguing to archaeologists, who have attempted to learn more about the origins and purpose of columelle, and why they emerged in Roman times. A lot of research has been done to find out how they were used, but little has been done to study them in the broader Roman context.

In a study now published by the American Journal of Archaeology, Allison Emmerson, from the Faculty of Classical Studies at Tulane University (USA), puts forward new hypotheses to solve the puzzle of what the columelle meant to the people of Southern Campania and why they appear older than they really are.

Unique cultural identity

In the pre-Roman period, the cities south of the Bay of Naples are thought to have been culturally distinct from the rest of Italy.

The aftermath of the Social War was characterised by great social and political upheaval. The entire Italian peninsula, including those cities, were for the first time all united under Rome, putting this unique culture in peril.

Emmerson argues that columelle were not pre-Roman objects which were then carried into the Roman era – as many other scholars had previously said. Instead, she writes that columelle began appearing around Pompeii and other southern cities early after the unification of the peninsula with a specific purpose

"The unification of the cities under Rome brought major shifts in the way Italians thought about themselves and each other. One reaction to the change was that Italian cities and regions — now politically and culturally united for the first time — began to emphasise their individual histories," Emmerson told IBTimes UK.

Columelle often marked one burial within a larger group tomb - usually the tomb of a single family, including their slaves. Their shape, so similar to that of a human bust, is much simpler than that of other gravestones from the same period, and as such, columelle appear to date back to more ancient times.

columelle pompeii
Strange gravestones were recovered near Pompeii. They are known as columelle.Peter Stewart/Flickr Creative commons

But Emmerson's research suggests that columelle were not as old as they might seem. Since none dating back to pre-Roman times have been discovered, there seems to be little evidence to say they formed part of a funerary culture unique to Pompeii and neighbouring cities before the Social War.

Rather, these gravestones erected after the war, seem to be a sort of political statement to show the rest of the Peninsula that these cities were unique, despite having been integrated into the Roman state.

"As often happens in times when humans look back to the 'good old days' that process brought with it some exaggeration, reimagining, and even invention of the past. Basically, they wanted to emphasize aspects of their culture that made them distinct. The evidence suggests that columelle, like other objects and traditions that appeared at the same time, were meant to seem old, but were actually new," Emmerson added.

According to her, there might have been even more reason to come up with objects such as columelle to create the image of an age old, unified region. The largest and most important city, Nuceria of southern Campania, had indeed sided with Rome in the Social War, unlike all the others. "So the columelle almost try to delete that recent history, glossing over what must have been bitter divisions between the people of the region," Emmerson said.