Roman artefact might be a wooden willy

Its earlier classification had been 'darning tool', but archaeologists have called for a revaluation
03 March 2023

Interview with 

Rob Collins, Newcastle University


Statue holding head in his hands


Archaeologists announced last week what they believe may be a Roman sex toy. The 2000 year old carved wooden object was originally uncovered in 1992 preserved in oxygen-poor sediments in a ditch at a Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall. At that time the field identification - made in a hurry, on the uncleaned specimen - was that it was a “darning needle”. This was sent for conservation and put into storage. Now, 30y later, scientists have been going through and reanalysing some of those old finds and this one in particular caught their eye. Based on appearances alone, its purpose looks pretty unequivocal. But there are a range of possibilities, including that it served a number of different roles in its lifetime. Newcastle University’s Rob Collins takes up the story…

Rob - This is a carved wooden object which resembles a penis. So within archaeology, that's the sort of thing that we would describe as a phallic object from the Roman period found inside the fills of a ditch outside the Roman fort of Vindolanda. It fits within human life size, scale and variety.

Chris - So what's your interpretation?

Rob - Well, we have three most likely identifications of the object, but we really can't be sure of any of them. Let's first start with a description of the object. It is about six and a half inches long. It is carved with a knife or a simple blade from a young branch of ash. I'm sure you can imagine a phallic shape in terms of the shaft and the tip, or what's better known as the glands. That's about four inches of its length. The last two inches are what we would call the base, and that's a thicker cylinder, which has a domed end. When we looked at the object in detail, we found differential wear on locations on the object which are smoother from repeated friction, but they're not even or equally distributed on the object. There's smoother surface areas on the tip into one side of the shaft, and also the cylindrical base is more smooth, but particularly the domed end is also very smooth. If you think about what that means in terms of how it was used, the question you ask is why is it smoother at both ends than it is in the middle? And that's what led us to these three possible interpretations.

Chris - And what interpretations are they?

Rob - The first one is that it's a separately carved phallus that's added to a larger object. In this case, we think that would most likely be a statue or even possibly a building or a post, something in the Roman world known as a herm. And so there are reasonable parallels for all those uses of a separate phallus being added. There is a wooden kind of statuette from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean. And we have the statuette, but we don't have the phallus. But there's a socket in the statuette where the phallus should be placed. With buildings, there are plenty of photos from Pompeii. You get some that are fully sculptural and 3D and standing proudly out from the building.

Chris - What's the second possible interpretation?

Rob - So the second possible interpretation is that it is a pestle, like a mortar and pestle, set for grinding up food, perhaps to make ingredients for medicine or even cosmetics because people would make their own cosmetics, their own makeup, in the past as well.

Chris - Do you go along with the possibility that it's that because when you do those sorts of grindings, would you not expect to see material that's been ground being forced into the wood and therefore you change the colour, you change the patterning? Or would that not preserve?

Rob - That's a really good point. The use of it as a pestle would really very nicely explain the very smooth domed base, that repeated contact. It would be great if we could see examples of whatever ingredients, materials were being ground up. But unfortunately, the conservation process that was completed back in 1992 means we can't do any of those sort of scientific analyses for biological traces.

Chris - And what's the third possibility?

Rob - The third possibility is that it is a sex implement, what we'd more often call today a sex toy. Now, calling it a sex toy implies that it's used for pleasure and that very well might be the case. But sadly, one of the things we also have to remember is that society was very unequal and that such an object might not only be used for pleasure, but could also be used to perpetuate a power imbalance. Women did not have equal rights. Children did not have equal rights. There were many people who were not protected under law.

Chris - When you say this was preserved decades ago, well, where's it been in the time since?

Rob - In the early nineties, in 1992 when the object was first excavated at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda, they were in this fort ditch. These objects came out of the ground mucky; covered in a kind of a clingy sticky clay sort of stuff. So I suspect that this object, along with hundreds of others, was recovered. It was then rapidly cleaned and then put into conservation right away so that it didn't deteriorate further. Whomever it was that looked at it and entered it onto the sheet called it a darning tool. And I can see why. There's the domed base, which is something you would see in darning. There's also the, what we now call the glands or the tip. But, you know, many darning tools have a a slight mushroom shape to them. And so it's an easy ID to make.

Chris - So what prompted you and your crew to go back and look again?

Rob - My co-writer and collaborator on this paper, Dr Rob Sands at University College Dublin is an expert in the archaeological use in preservation of wood. And so he's been working on a long project researching the wooden object archive at Vindolanda. And so he's the person who, in working methodically through the archive and looking at every object, came across this one and said, "ah, this is a dick."

Chris - You've certainly got a sense of humor because you titled the paper "Touch Wood." How are you going to try to resolve, because you've set three scenarios there. You're saying, "Look, it's clearly not a darning needle. There's other possibilities here." But how can you resolve this? Or is it going to remain one of these three possibilities going forward?

Rob - I think, at least for now, and very specifically with this object, we might never know. And I think it's really important that we're honest about that. Where I think there's room for improved understanding in the future is if more objects like these are found. If some other museum curators are able to dig through their stores and say, "Ah, I thought I had something similar", and something comes to light, maybe that will have the opportunity for scientific analysis. This might be the first such object, but I fully expect that more should be discovered. It's just a question of looking.


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