Decades after a wooden object was discovered in a Roman ruin, a team of researchers reidentified it as a phallus — and it's possibly the first Roman sex toy ever found.
In 1992, researchers unearthed a 2,000-year-old wooden object in a ditch outside of Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort near Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England.
According to CNN, archaeologists found the object surrounded by dozens of shoes, dresses, craft tools, and accessories, leading them to initially believe it was a darning tool — an instrument used for patchworking and mending knitted materials.
However, researchers recently corrected their misidentification and officially redesignated the object as a carved phallus. And according to the team’s study in the journal Antiquity, it may be the first Roman-era sex toy ever found.
“It very well could be a sex object and, if it is, it is the first example from the Roman world,” study co-author Rob Collins, a senior lecturer in the archaeology department at Newcastle University, told CNN.
“We shouldn’t be surprised by this,” Collins added. “We know from Roman art and Roman literature that they used dildos, that they existed. But we haven’t found any examples archaeologically yet.”
This is because, according to the study’s authors, crafters of Roman sex toys primarily used organic materials prone to quick decomposition, making it unlikely that any would have survived.
If the researchers’ theory is correct, this object may offer the first physical evidence of Roman sex toys, providing a rare opportunity to closely analyze how craftsman made them, why they made them, and who they made them for.
The wooden object measures 6.3 inches, but researchers believe that it could have been larger at the time of its use, as the wood used to carve the phallus is prone to shrinking and warping. Despite this, researchers say that the phallus likely remained proportionally accurate.
Additionally, the neat, precise carvings on the object suggest that its maker used a single tool to shape it.
“Little technical proficiency was required, but an economy of line creates the intended visual outcome,” the study reads. “The individual cuts appear assured and symmetrical, with no evidence for mistakes.”
While it’s possible the object was used as a dildo, researchers explored a variety of other possible uses.
“The size of the phallus and the fact that it was carved from wood raises a number of questions about its use in antiquity,” Collins told LiveScience. “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.”
Romans frequently painted phallic symbols in their frescos and mosaics, and some even wore necklaces with phallic designs. The symbol did not always denote sexual pleasure, but could instead represent good fortune or power.
It is also possible that the object’s owner used it in a display of sexual power over enslaved individuals. According to the study, Roman literature documents several instances in which slavers used sexual violence against those they enslaved.
“So, the other thing we have to be conscious of is that it would be easy to cast such an object as silly and frivolous and just about sexual gratification, but it could be a tool for perpetuating power imbalance and subjugation,” Collins told CNN.
Researchers also noted a curious fact: Whoever used the phallus frequently made contact with its base and tip. Both parts of the object were well-worn and smooth from repeated use, and researchers speculate that it may have been created to fit within a socket, perhaps in a statue where passersby touched it for good luck.
Finally, researchers wrote in their study that the owner of the object may have used it as a pestle for culinary purposes or to grind cosmetic or medicinal ingredients.
The phallus is currently on display at the Vindolanda museum and managed by the Vindolanda Trust. Researchers are hopeful that they will uncover other examples of Roman sex toys in the future, and the team has already initiated an effort to revisit similar objects in museum collections around the world.
Until more information about Roman sex toys comes to light, researchers must rely only on speculation about how these curious objects were once used in one of history’s most powerful empires.