Is Archaeology Due for a Sexual Revolution?Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, history of sexuality
Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient stone barrier that cuts across England from coast to coast, is a Roman fort called Vindolanda. Built around 85 A.D. and occupied for more than 300 years, Vindolanda was the tense interstice between empire and unoccupied frontier—a largely self-contained city at the edge of the Roman world. Today, surrounded by green, picturesque countryside, it is a wellspring of insight into the human past.
Thousands of wooden objects have been found at Vindolanda, most of them mundane—bits of wheels, remnants of furniture, a toilet seat. Rob Sands, an assistant professor in archaeology at University College Dublin, was recently examining these objects for an upcoming exhibit when he came across one particular artifact and did a double take. The artifact’s official description labeled it as a darning tool, a crafting device that helps secure fibers and can be shaped like a mushroom or maraca. But to Sands, the “darning tool” looked much more like a wooden penis.
Sands made that hunch official last month, when he and Rob Collins, who had been researching phallic stone carvings from Vindolanda, published a reinterpretation of the ancient object as a disembodied phallus. They proposed three possible functions for the wooden carving based on an analysis of its most-worn areas, details of its shape, and the cultural context in which it was created: a decorative good-luck charm, a pestle, or most provocatively, a dildo. Collins, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University, in England, told me that the first time he had closely examined the nearly 2,000-year-old object, he’d noticed “some really interesting wear patterns” that were highly suggestive of a use quite distinct from sewing. “This doesn’t prove anything,” he told me, but it reinforced the possibility that the object might have, in his words, a “business end.”
If the Vindolanda phallus is what Collins thinks it might be, then it’s the first Roman object identified as such. Ancient sex toys, generally, are hard to come by. There are rare exceptions—like a stone dildo found in China dated to about 600 A.D.—but most definitive examples are more recent, like sex toys from around the 18th century in France and Japan. Yet representations of sex toys in art and texts abound; for instance, in one Greek play from the third century B.C., two women discuss a scarlet-leather dildo and how much they enjoy it. This kind of evidence strongly suggests that these objects existed in antiquity. So what has archaeology been missing?
It’s possible that most ancient sex toys were made from organic materials and, as a result, haven’t survived: A leather dildo, or even a wooden one, has the odds stacked against it. The Vindolanda phallus happened to be preserved only because of particular soil conditions caused by repeated building on the same spot. But even when genitalia-shaped objects do survive, Collins said, they tend not to be seen as sexual—and many of them likely weren’t. We can’t always determine an object’s purpose based only on its shape: Plenty of old and modern objects are, to varying degrees, penis-shaped without having a sexual use, or sexual without being penis-shaped. In their paper, Collins and Sands cited a few other examples of ancient wooden phallic objects—recovered in Egypt, China, and Japan—none of which are categorized as sex toys.
Determining whether a particular object was used for sex can be challenging. Ideally, you’d be able to reference supporting documents, such as a mosaic or poem depicting its function, says Rebecca Fasman, a curator at the Kinsey Institute, which focuses on research related to sex. For example, the Kinsey Institute houses a five-inch-long Egyptian terracotta phallus that Fasman says might have been used sexually. The supporting evidence for that theory: It’s life-size—too big to be a good-luck talisman, too small to be art—and lacks the adornments of other commonly found phallic objects, such as wind chimes. But the artifact may have served a different purpose, or even multiple purposes, Fasman told me. Perhaps it was attached to a larger sculpture as a charm to ward off evil or a symbol of fertility.
As Collins and Sands see it, however, the fact that sex toys are missing from the archaeological record may say much more about how ancient people are studied today than how they actually behaved. Until the late 20th century, Collins said, most archaeologists were reluctant to consider the possibility that an artifact might be a sex toy at all. Prudishness and propriety limited how researchers could decipher objects and past cultures, Collins argues, with “only certain interpretations deemed acceptable for a wider public.” In the 1930s, for example, a classics scholar and poet named A. E. Housman tried to publish an examination of Roman homosexuality, but it was turned down for being too salacious, says Kelly Olson, a classics professor at Western University in Canada. These attitudes restricted people’s understanding of not just antiquity but also a fundamental part of our human story—the search for sexual pleasure.