Unusual artefact from Vindolanda re-investigated

Researchers suggest that this could have been some kind of sexual implement, something that is rarely considered among archaeological artefacts

There is no question that the ancient Romans loved phallic imagery, which they believed to have protective properties – so it came as no surprise when a phallus-shaped piece of wood (below) was found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda. The object has no known parallel, and its exact purpose remains unknown. In re-examining it, however, Rob Collins from Newcastle University and Rob Sands from University College Dublin have developed several working hypotheses (the full results of which were recently published in Antiquity: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.11).

IMAGE: Object W-1992-1062 from Vindolanda (photographs by R Sands)

The phallus was discovered in 1992, recovered from ditch fill dating to AD 165-200, along with 838 other objects, including shoes and writing implements. It appears that the artefact was not given any special consideration at the time, and it was simply labelled as a darning tool. On its rediscovery in the Vindolanda collection, however, this label was called into question.

In order to learn more about the object, the two Robs looked at how it was constructed and at its use-wear pattern. They found that the phallus was finely carved out of ash, but that some tool marks are still apparent, suggesting that the wood was not fully seasoned when it was worked. They could also see that the greatest amount of wear was on either end of the object, with little wear in the middle.

What, then, could this pattern indicate? It was first suggested that it might have been a herm – a projecting phallus that was positioned near doorways for passers-by to touch to receive protection. The rounded base would not have fitted easily into a socket, however. This could suggest that it was, instead, a pestle, and its use- wear is broadly in line with how one would have been employed. With no residue present to indicate what the object might have been used to pulverise, however, it is hard to prove that it was used in this way. As a third option, the Robs suggest that this could have been some kind of sexual implement, something that is rarely considered among archaeological artefacts, possibly to the detriment of being able to fully consider lives in the past.

Since the paper’s publication, a number of other theories have been forthcoming, including interpretations of the object as a weaving tool. Commenting on this, Rob Collins told CA: ‘The suggestion of a drop spindle and other similarly shaped objects is interesting, and even possible. It must be remembered, however, that identifying any object is about more than simply having a similar shape. Does it have similar wear marks? If not, then why? The feasibility of an identification is also increased when you can point to similar objects from that culture. That makes the third suggested function as a sex object more difficult to “prove”, but at least we can point to artistic and literary representations. In regards to a drop spindle, they have a different form and wear patterns during the Roman period.’