Images of the male genitalia played an important role in the Roman world. By carving, painting, etching and sculpting images of the phallus, as a standalone piece, as part of the human body or even as an animated object, equipped with little legs for running around, the Romans believed they could ward off evil, invoke fertility and bring good luck upon themselves.

At Vindolanda, many phallic images have been uncovered through the years. A small statue of the fertility god Priapus was excavated in 2006, close to an oven in the rampart of the Northwestern quadrant of the last stone fort. Our collection also includes seal boxes with a phallus on the lid, and items of equestrian gear decorated with phallic images.

Through ongoing research into the collection has revealed an unexpected addition: a wooden penis. The re-discovery prompted work from a team of two experts. Dr Rob Sands, from University College in Dublin, brought to the table his knowledge of material culture, what objects are, how they fit into daily life and what is the biographical trajectory, while Dr Rob Collins from Newcastle University brought his knowledge of representations of phallic images on the Wall, which he had previously painstakingly categorized into a typology. Research on our wooden phallus is ongoing, but we can share with you some preliminary physical observations.

The Vindolanda wooden carved phallus is believed to be the only example from Roman Britain. It is carved from ash, a common tree, native to the British Isles: the wood from which the phallus was carved could have been found close to Vindolanda, or elsewhere in the British province.

The object is about 16 cm long, and has a maximum diameter at the base of circa 4.6 cm. The diameter tapers towards the tip of the object, where the marks left by the carver are most visible. These marks seem to indicate someone who was used to working wood: there are no deep gauges, and the surface is quite smooth. In fact, at the tip and the base of the object, the surface shows signs of being frequently handled. The annual rings of growth are visible at the centre of the top of the object.  

Our wooden object was found discarded in a ditch, in a context dating to the late 2nd century, which at Vindolanda marks the final phases of the Antonine period of occupation. What was ‘it’ doing, discarded in a ditch? And where did ‘it’ come from? Can we do more to understand what caused the wear patterns which are so evident at the tip and on the base, but did not damage the shaft? The team of two Robs, aided by the Vindolanda curatorial team, are working hard to find parallels for this object, and answer the many questions it still carries with it.

Update: 20th February 2023.

A research paper has now been published on the wooden phallus and can be accessed via the Newcastle University Press Release.