The 2,000-year-old wooden phallus was probably a sex toy
The 2,000-year-old object found in a Roman fort has been reassessed by archaeologists: it was a dildo, not a patch tool.
Archaeologists believe they may have found the only known life-size Roman dildo, discovered in a ditch in the far north of the empire.
If this 2,000-year-old object wasn’t used as a sexual tool, then it could be a penis-shaped pestle with an erection or part of a statue that people have touched for good luck.
What this object was definitely not was the description it was written in when cataloging it after it was discovered in 1992 at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland: a patch tool.
Rob Collins, senior lecturer in archeology at Newcastle University, said: “I have to admit, it’s pretty obvious it’s a penis. I don’t know who cataloged this. Maybe it was someone who was offended by that or didn’t think the Romans would do such stupid things.”
If the cataloguer thought this, they could no longer be wrong, considering that two- and three-dimensional representations of the phallus were ubiquitous in the Roman world in mosaics, frescoes, pottery ornaments, or neck jewelry.
“Dimensions of the dildo”
This stamen, found at Vindolanda, is 16 cm long, but was probably larger at that time, according to the researchers, because archaeological wood is prone to shrinkage and warping.
The phallus was found in a ditch, along with dozens of shoes and clothing accessories, as well as handcrafted waste products such as cut leather and processed horns – perhaps one reason why it was considered a patching tool.
Collins said, “The first thing that does this is that it’s not a small, miniature phallus. This is real size. This is also important because wood does not normally survive… We did not find any similar parallels.”
“The size of the tool and the uncertainty of its features are fascinating. Generally, when we obtain an object in excavation, we can understand what it is to talk about or work for. That was not the case for this object.”
Ancient phallic objects were often used to ward off evil. Analysis showed that the Vindolanda phallus had significantly smoother ends, suggesting that it was used for something over a period of time.
“Difference from ancient phallic objects”
The team outlined three possible theories, all outlined in a detailed discussion paper published in the journal Antiquity.
One theory was that it was used for sexual reasons. Collins says this could mean it’s a sex toy, but it requires some caution.
“Sometimes dildos weren’t always used for pleasure… they could be tools of torture, so I’m very cautious about using the term sex toys. I hope it was used for this. This is the most exciting and intriguing possibility.”
“If that’s the case, this will be the first Roman dildo found in archaeology, as far as we know. We know from Greek and Roman poetry and Greek and Roman art that they used dildos. But we didn’t have any archaeological specimens that were interesting in and of themselves.”
“If so, and if it was found here at the northern tip of the empire rather than in the wealthy center of Roman Italy… that’s a bit surprising.”
The second hypothesis is that the item was either a cooking tool or a pestle for chopping up or grinding up cosmetic or medicinal ingredients. Its size made it easy to use, and its shape filled food or ingredients with believed magical properties.
The third option was meant to be placed in a statue that passers-by would touch for good luck or to ward off misfortune or – common throughout the Roman empire.
If that were the case, the statue would probably have been positioned next to a significant building’s entrance, but the evidence implies that the phallus was either inside or at least not left exposed outside for very long.
The researchers hope that the Vindolanda phallus will encourage them to look for similar objects in other collections. Meanwhile, the object in question began to be exhibited in the Vindolanda museum.