A recent study has suggested that a wooden object, shaped like a penis, which was found in a ditch at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, could have been a sexual tool used by ancient Romans in Britain. The object was discovered in 1992 and initially recorded as a darning tool; however, the researchers have reinterpreted it as a disembodied phallus, highlighting some of its possible functions. If the artifact is a sex toy, it represents the only known example of a non-miniaturised wooden phallus from Roman times. Researchers have suggested that the object could have been used for clitoral stimulation, rather than penetration. Additionally, the object could have been used as a tool for torture or to assert dominance by a slave owner on an enslaved person, reinforcing power imbalances. The object is unique in its survival from this time, but it is unlikely to have been the only one of its kind used at the site or throughout Roman Britain.
Phallic objects have not been commonly found in archaeological discoveries, possibly because they were made from organic materials, which have not routinely survived. Nonetheless, phallic pendants, worn to avert evil or bad luck, were commonplace. The object being smoother at both ends than in the middle suggests those areas had the most contact. Therefore, the phallus could have been slotted into a structure, statue, or another object where it was touched by passers-by for good luck or to gain protection from misfortune. Additionally, the object could have been used as a pestle for grinding or mixing materials for cooking, cosmetics, ointments or medicines. This object could symbolically add protection or potency to whatever was being prepared, with the act of grinding believed to activate magic.
It is suggested that the object could have served multiple purposes or its function could have changed over time. Finding similar examples in archaeology could help researchers better identify the object’s function. The study hopes to stimulate a revisit of objects that are currently in museum collections that could be similar to the wooden phallus but have not been recognized as such. Barbara Birley, curator at the Vindolanda Trust, added that the wooden phallus may 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.