Sex toys can provide pleasure, deeper intimacy, and can even help those with pelvic floor pain, erectile dysfunction, and the effects of menopause. People have also probably used them for much longer in history than we think.
A study published February 20 in the journal Antiquity believes that a nearly 2,000 year-old penis-shaped wooden object might have been a sex toy used by ancient Romans in Britain. It could be the “first known example of a non-miniaturized disembodied phallus made of wood in the Roman world,” according to the study.
Archaeologists found the almost seven-inch-long artifact over 20 years ago in a ditch near Vindolanda, the remains of a Roman Fort near Hadrian’s Wall. The 73-mile-long wall in northern England once once marked the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire.
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According to the study, the tool was initially believed to be a darning tool, likely because it was found alongside dozens of shoes, dress accessories, and small tools and craft waste products. It was also suspected that the object may have been used as a pestle or as a charm to “ward off evil,” as phalli were used across the Roman Empire as a way to protect against bad luck. They were usually depicted in paintings and mosaics, and small phalli made from metal or bone were commonly worn as pendants around the neck.
A new analysis from Newcastle University and University College Dublin found that this is the first known example of a disembodied wooden phallus recovered in the Roman world.
“Wooden objects would have been commonplace in the ancient world, but only survive in very particular conditions – in northern Europe normally in dark, damp, and oxygen free deposits,” said Rob Sands, a study co-author and archaeologist from University College Dublin, in a statement. “So, the Vindolanda phallus is an extremely rare survival. It survived for nearly 2000 years to be recovered by the Vindolanda Trust because preservation conditions have so far remained stable. However, climate change and altering water tables mean that the survival of objects like this are under ever increasing threat.”
The team believes that it was more likely used to stimulate the clitoris and not necessarily used for penetration. It could have been used as a pestle to grind cooking ingredients or medicine. The phallus could have been slotted into a statue for passers-by to touch for good luck or to absorb its protection from back luck. This practice was common throughout the Empire and the statue it belonged to may have been located near the entrance to an important government or military building.
“The size of the phallus and the fact that it was carved from wood raises a number of questions to its use in antiquity. We cannot be certain of its intended use, in contrast to most other phallic objects that make symbolic use of that shape for a clear function, like a good luck charm,” said Rob Collins, a study co-author and archaeologist from Newcastle University, in a statement. “We know that the ancient Romans and Greeks used sexual implements – this object from Vindolanda could be an example of one.”
The phallus is currently on display at the Vindolanda museum and the team hopes that the findings encourage more analysis of previously found objects to better understand their purposes.
“This rediscovery shows the real legacy value of having such an incredible collection of material from one site and being able to reassess that material,” said Barbara Birley, Curator at the Vindolanda Trust, in a statement. “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.”