Archaeologists in the UK have learned a tool originally believed to mend clothes could be the first Ancient Roman dildo ever discovered.
The ashwood object, originally recovered in 1992 and catalogued as a darning tool, was revisited and reclassified recently after being examined by archaeologists, who thought it was a dick.
University College Dublin professor in archaeology Rob Sands noticed it whilst assessing wooden objects which have been found in Vindolanda, near Newcastle in north-east England.
Vindolanda was a Roman fort a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall, under occupation between roughly 85 AD to 370 AD.
“He came across this object and said, ‘ah yes, this is a dick,’” co-researcher Rob Collins, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Newcastle University, told VICE World News over video call.
Collins, who researches notions of sexuality in the Roman frontier, and Sands have not been able to establish the true purpose of the phallus, but their joint wood expertise has led to three compelling possibilities for the object which dates back to the second century AD.
Their findings were published today in a paper titled Touch wood: luck, protection, power or pleasure? A wooden phallus from Vindolanda Roman fort.
The phallus is around 6.5 inches long, and was carved with a single tool like a knife or small blade.
That it may have been a sexual implement – which could mean a dildo, but also extends to its usage as a tool used between masters and slaves or in non-consenting scenarios – seems to be a real possibility, especially for Collins who believes a lack of sex research in general is thwarting better analysis.
“Something we do in archaeology is wear analysis, and there’s no wear analysis that’s been done on dildos,” he explained. “I suspect because of the wear on this one that, if it was used as a dildo, it would bend more for clitoral stimulation rather than penetration. For example because most of the wear is around the tip, and more to one side that suggests small repeated use or stroking.”
The best comparison that came to mind for Collins was an ivory dildo found outside a French nunnery in the 1700s.
The main obstacle to confirming it as a sex tool is that there has never been a confirmed dildo discovery at all from the Greco-Roman period, just a tonne of poetry written about them – meaning that the team had nothing physical to compare it to.
But this is likely down to the fact they would have been made from wood, which is often only well-preserved in boggy or desert-like conditions. Vindolanda happens to be one of the rare, damp sites where this happens.
“Ash is the kind of wood that you would use for making the handles of tools. It would have been commonly available, and in terms of it being carved as a phallus, it was just great,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the topic by any means but it strikes me that the modern consumer is a bit spoiled for choice with different materials. In the ancient world, there’s not many.”
Other possible choices for dildo-making may have been stone or ceramic – allowing for less flexibility, and demanding greater skill to make – but these have never been discovered.
Fern Riddell, a cultural historian specialising in sex, told VICE World News: “It’s been such a long road to get the wider academic community to see sex history and the history of sexuality as an important field of study, so I absolutely celebrate the acknowledgement that this is designed as an erotic object – it’s the most likely use.”
She added: “But I think one of the most important parts of this better understanding of our ancestors’ sexual history is that it’s not automatically assumed to be made just for pleasure. We don’t often address rape and sexual abuse as a weapon that was used against both men and women in the past, and it’s so important to acknowledge that it happened.”
But the room for doubt around its purpose, as well as Ancient Rome’s obsession with all things phallus-shaped, means that the mystery phallus may in fact be something else.
Collins and Sands also suggest that it could be part of a statue, or even used as a pestle to crush ingredients.
“Something I tell my students is actually if you’re not seeing dicks, then you’re not truly seeing the Romans,” Collins said. “They’re not just about sex; it’s a symbolism for protection to ward off bad luck or the evil eye.”
Gods associated with fertility and trade were frequently depicted with engorged erections, as were boundary markers. Detachable body parts were used on statues, though normally in stone; the authors write in their paper that “the lack of surface weathering, however, suggests that, if used in such a way, the phallus was either kept indoors or in a sheltered location, or at least was not placed in an exposed position for any appreciable length of time.”
If it were a pestle, a phallus-shaped pestle might symbolically add “efficacy, or protection, to whatever was being prepared in the mortar.”
Collins believes that it is possible future phalluses may reveal themselves, either in future Vindolanda excavations or further away. Conditions need to be fully wet or dry for the wood to be preserved, frozen in time by the lack of oxygen, which is rare.
Sands has also warned that “climate change and altering water tables mean that the survival of objects like this are under ever increasing threat.”
Collins hopes that their work will provoke new research, as well as museum curators to look through their archives in case any other phalluses have been miscatalogued.
One of the reasons it was misidentified is likely that it was rushed to the lab for cleaning and conservation in 1992 before proper analysis could be attempted. But perhaps there might have been other reasons the dick went unnoticed.
Riddell added: “We know that in the past archaeologists and historians have either hidden, or just not realised, that the object they are cataloguing had a sexual use.”
“That’s why it’s so vital that we constantly go back to reexamine what we have saved, so that we can correct any mistakes and bring the truth to light.”