A nearly 2,000-year-old wooden object in the shape of a penis could have served as a sexual tool by ancient Romans in Britain, according to a new study.
The artifact was unearthed in 1992 in a ditch at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall, which once marked the Roman Empire’s northwest frontier, in northern England. Researchers initially recorded the object as being a darning tool, according to the study published in the journal Antiquity on Sunday.
This misidentification was the result of the tool being found alongside dozens of shoes and dress accessories, and other small tools and craft waste products, according to a news release.
However, researchers have reinterpreted the artifact as a disembodied phallus and, by examining it closely, have outlined some of its most likely possible functions.
Phallic clues from Roman art and literature
The carved object, which is 160 millimeters (6.3 inches) long, could have been used as a sexual tool, not necessarily for penetration, but more likely for clitoral stimulation, the researchers wrote. If the archaeological find is indeed a sex toy, it represents the only known example of a “non-miniaturised” wooden phallus from Roman times, according to the study.
“It very well could be a sex object and, if it is, it is the first example from the Roman world,” study coauthor Rob Collins, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, told CNN.
“We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We know from Roman art and Roman literature that they used dildos, that they existed. But we haven’t found any examples archaeologically yet,” he added.
One of the reasons such objects are not common in archaeological finds is because dildos were more likely to have been made from organic materials and, therefore, do not routinely survive, according to the study.
However, if the artifact is a sexual tool, it might not always have been used exclusively as a sex toy for pleasure.
The object could have been used by a slave owner on an enslaved person, whether male or female, for torture or to assert dominance, reinforcing power imbalances, according to the study.
“So, the other thing we have to be conscious of is that it would be easy to cast such an object as silly and frivolous and just about sexual gratification, but it could be a tool for perpetuating power imbalance and subjugation,” Collins said.
Small, portable phallus objects were commonly found as pendants, probably to avert evil or bad luck, according to the study.
However, the object, carved from young ash roundwood, with a wide base and narrow tip, had greater wear at both its ends than in the middle. The object being smoother at both its ends than in the middle — likely due to oils from the skin and repeated gripping — suggests those areas had the most contact.
Therefore, the phallus could have been slotted into a structure, statue or another object, where it was touched by passers-by for good luck or to gain protection from misfortune. This ritual was common throughout the Roman Empire, according to the release.
However, when the Roman phallus was compared to a wooden phallus object from the New Kingdom of Egypt, it was found to be missing some of the features that it would be expected to have if it were mounted onto a structure.
Another possible use of the object was as a pestle for grinding or mixing materials for cooking, cosmetics, ointments or medicines, according to the study. A phallus-shaped pestle could symbolically add protection or potency to whatever was being prepared, with the act of grinding being the vehicle through which magic was believed to be activated, the researchers wrote.
The object could have served multiple purposes, or its function could have changed over time, according to Collins, who said it was possible that the object could have started as a pestle, for example, before being used as a sex object.
Finding similar examples in archaeology could help researchers better identify the object’s function, said Collins, who hopes the study stimulates a revisit of objects that are currently in museum collections that could be similar to the wooden phallus but have not been recognized as such.
“The wooden phallus may well be currently unique in its survival from this time, but it is unlikely to have been the only one of its kind used at the site, along the frontier, or indeed in Roman Britain,” added Barbara Birley, curator at the Vindolanda Trust, in the release.
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