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HomeCanadaGiant phallus of Vindolanda: the Roman sex toy may have been made...

Giant phallus of Vindolanda: the Roman sex toy may have been made by a shoemaker, according to a specialist in ancient prostheses


In 1992, archaeologists discovered what they thought was a darning tool during excavations at the site of the Vindolanda Roman Forton Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England. The artifact was later discarded, so it was not researched. Until recently.

When archaeologists Rob Collins of Newcastle University and Rob Sands of University College Dublin re-examined the artifact, they were shocked. After studying it, they came to a somewhat different interpretation, believing that what had been thought to be a darning tool was actually a phallus. And not just any: it is the only life-size wooden phallus from Roman times found intact to date.

Through my research on antique denturesI know that Roman shoemakers often practiced a second, more daring activity. Could they be the origin of this wooden tool, which appears to be a dildo from ancient Roman times?

Numerous stone, metal, bone and ceramic phalluses have already been discovered at other Roman sites. While phalluses made of organic material, such as wood and leather, were no doubt just as popular in Roman times, they could only be preserved under certain specific conditions: very humid or very dry.

The site of Vindolanda, whose conditions are very humid, astonishes archaeologists with the treasures it conceals, such as wooden tablets on which letters were inscribed (including one birthday party invitation), a pair of leather boxing gloves or one wooden toilet seat.

THE Vindolanda’s phallusas it is now called, was found in a deposit dating from the end of the second century AD and is particularly well preserved.

It is carved from ash wood and was probably carved with a single tool by someone knowledgeable in woodcarving, as there is no trace of mistakes made in the process. It is 16cm long, but it may have originally been larger, as the wood tends to shrink and warp over time.

The phallus was a widespread image in the Roman world. If we have already interpreted the phalluses in a very literal way, considering that they indicated the way to brothels, nowadays, we perceive them rather as “apotropaic” objects, that is to say, used to protect ourselves. and ward off bad luck. Thus, one can imagine different uses for the phallus of Vindolanda.

Theories on the wooden phallus

It is quite possible that the artifact was used in a sexual context. However, it may be a pestle which, together with a mortar, would have been used for the preparation of food or medicine. If so, it may be that the phallic shape was seen as enhancing the properties of the ingredients.

Roman Hermes with a head of Mercury.
The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC

It could also have been inserted into a statue, such as a representation of the god Priapus or Sylvanus, or even simply a Hermesa sculpture with a head and a rectangular lower section on which genitals were sometimes carved), either on a stand or mounted on a building, which people could touch or rub for good luck.

The lack of wear indicates that if the phallus was attached to a statue, it was indoors and not exposed to the Northumberland weather including the soldiers stationed at Vindolanda frequently complained in their correspondence.

The archaeologists who examined the artifact to redefine its use rather tend to believe that it was a pestle or part of a statue than a sex toy.

However, the fact that the phallus was discovered in a pit with dozens of shoes and clothing accessories and rubbish such as leather scraps and pieces of worked antler is intriguing. This lends weight to the sex toy theory.

Ancient craftsmen, such as shoemakers, could engage in all kinds of occupations, and although many men’s, women’s and children’s shoes have been found in Vindolanda, shoemakers must have had all the time, during the long and dark Nordic nights, to do various odd jobs.

A scale next to the wooden phallus shows that it is 15 cm long
Vindolanda’s wooden phallus with ladder.
Courtesy of The Vindolanda Trust

Just as today we sometimes associate the size of the feet with that of the penis, in antiquity a link was frequently established between the feet and the phallus. The poet Herondas features two womenKoritto and Métro, discussing the red leather dildo that the former has just acquired. The other wants to know where she can find a similar one, and Koritto advises her to go to the shoemaker Kerdon.

Further on, Metro approaches Kerdon for what she is looking for, and the shoemaker presents her with a vast catalog of “shoes” from which she can choose. Perhaps the town outside the fort of Vindolanda was home to an equally resourceful shoemaker.

Although excavations at Vindolanda have been going on for decades, the site still has the capacity to surprise and amaze us through the window it opens to us on the most intimate aspects of the life of the Romans who lived there. 2,000 years old.

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