An artefact unearthed at Vindolanda fort, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, may be the only known surviving example of an ancient Roman wooden dildo, archaeologists say.
It is carved from young ash and has a wide cylindrical base and a narrower shaft, with a terminal shaped as the glans. It measures 16cm, or a little over six inches — although the experts note that “archaeological wood is prone to shrinkage” and it was once slightly larger.
After it was discovered alongside discarded shoes and dress accessories in a 2nd-century boundary ditch in 1992, it was initially mistaken for a darning tool. Now, a closer inspection indicates that it is first known example of a life-sized disembodied wooden phallus from anywhere in the Roman world.
The researchers at Newcastle University and University College Dublin said that phalli (or phalluses) — representations of erect penises — were “ubiquitous” across the Roman empire and were believed to protect against bad luck. They were often depicted in frescoes, mosaics and stone carvings, and small versions in metal or bone were worn as pendants. An abundance of phallic finds at Roman army sites, including along Britain’s volatile northern frontier, may be linked not only to perceived protective properties but also to connotations of virility and power.
However, the team believe the Vindolanda wooden phallus was used for more than merely warding off evil or projecting strength. There are tell-tale signs of wear on its surfaces.
As they explain in their paper, in the journal Antiquity: “Despite technological advances, touch still provides a very valuable qualitative assessment and can reveal subtle variations in the roughness or smoothness of surfaces not immediately apparent or available in images or scans.
“Tactile examination of the Vindolanda phallus reveals that the convex base end is smooth, which we attribute to intentional shaping during manufacture and/or exposure to repeated contact through use. A zone approximately 40mm in length along the underside and lateral faces of the shaft and an area 30–40mm long at the tip (upper shaft, glans and area behind it) were also notably smoother than other surface areas, possibly indicating repeated contact.”
Given this evidence of friction, they propose that the phallus may have been used as a sex toy. In support of this, they note that the pattern of wear is similar to that on an 18th-century ivory dildo that was found concealed in the stuffing of a Louis XV armchair in a French convent.
“If you read Catullus and Ovid, you find references to sexual implements”Dr Rob Collins
The archaeologists suggest another possible use of the Vindolanda phallus was as a pestle to pound foodstuffs or ingredients for cosmetics or medicines while imbuing them with magical properties.
Dr Rob Collins, senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University and the paper’s lead author, favours the sex toy interpretation. He said that, while no examples of wooden Roman dildos existed in the archaeological record, their use was known from Roman and Greek literature and art. It is rare for wooden objects to survive from the Roman period, but anaerobic soil conditions at the Vindolanda fort site have preserved a trove of artefacts made of organic materials, including over 1,600 wooden writing tablets.
Collins said: “If you read the poetry of Catullus and Ovid, you find references to sexual implements. They’re sometimes insults — castigating someone for using such an object, or comparing someone they don’t like to one. In Roman and Greek literary depictions, there are a whole range of tones [in depicting dildos]. Sometimes it’s about an unsatisfied wife, but it might be less about what the woman wants so much as being able to mock the man. It gets weaponised as a way to criticise male figures.”
As for who might have used the Vindolanda phallus, he said: “In Greek examples — it’s more explicit in Greek art and literature than Roman — it tends to be more women than men using dildos. In those representations it can be a solo activity or a group activity. But without knowing more, we can’t preclude the possibility of who was using it.”
He said the community of Vindolanda fort and its adjacent settlement included all sorts of people, including soldiers and their families, traders and slaves. Soldiers stationed there included units from modern-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.
“The Romans had a very different value system to us,” Collins added. “Sex wasn’t necessarily something that was seen as shameful or hidden away. That said, there were also unspoken rules about what was appropriate and inappropriate behaviour that would shift depending on circumstances. What’s tough to say is, within a frontier community like Vindolanda, if such an object was something that had to be hidden and kept secret, because it was an embarrassing or shameful practice. Or, actually, if it was no big deal and you could be going away at it in your barrack or your house in the settlement outside the fort. We just don’t know.”
And he cautioned: “What we need to be careful about is not assuming that something like this — if it is a dildo — was only about pleasure. It could be an implement of torture, or domination.”
In the paper, the researchers also moot the possibility that the phallus could have slotted into a statue that passers-by touched for good luck. However, due to its design, they consider this less likely than the dildo and pestle theories.
Collins said the ambiguity of objects such as the Vindolanda phallus was useful in that it encouraged archaeologists to think more open-mindedly. Nevertheless, he suggested that academics would be more comfortable viewing the phallus as a statue appendage or pestle loaded with symbolism than simply as a sex toy.
He said: “Often in academia and research, we like to point to a parallel: ‘We know these exist’. We don’t have that for the Roman world — not a physical example. Even though we know they existed in the culture and we can look at different cultures and societies at different times and places and point to physical examples. That can make the interpretation — if you can pardon the pun — harder to swallow.”
Barbara Birley, curator of the Vindolanda Trust, said: “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.”
The phallus is now on display in the Vindolanda museum.
The top image shows the ruins of Vindolanda fort in Northumberland. Photo: Alamy