Prudish archaeologists of past eras were often uncomfortable with the prevalence of erotic imagery in the classical world but fortunately that isn’t the case at MOLA where we enjoy a good laugh. A tiny (c. 1cm long) copper-alloy phallic mount has ‘popped up’ in one of our trenches, recovered from the organic rich deposits along the edge of the Walbrook and has quickly become a favourite find on site.
Objects with sexual imagery were a part of everyday Roman life and, just like today, range from the erotic to the humorous depending on context. Sometimes sex scenes are depicted on objects such as pottery, wall paintings and copper alloy token named spintriae, An example from the Thames foreshore recently reported through the Portable Antiquity Scheme and now in the collection of the Museum of London is the first of its kind from the city. But the phallus depicted by itself was also a very popular image and in addition to being a potent symbol of fertility and masculinity it was also thought to provide protection from the ‘evil eye’. This is idea is quirkily expressed by a ceramic plaque in the British Museum which shows a pair of anthropomorphic phalli attacking the evil eye with a saw.
As such phallic images had wide ranging appeal and decorated everything from buildings to oil lamps and jewellery. A phallic pendant came from our excavations on the early Roman fort at Plantation Place and there is good reason to think that these objects were used by soldiers as good luck charms. MOLA excavations elsewhere in London have even produced what appears to be a phallic hairpin, although alternative functions could be proposed for this unusual object.
So what about our little Walbrook phallus? A projecting rivet shaft at the base suggests that it was once a decorative mount on a larger object and the key to unravelling its meaning will be determining exactly what it was originally attached to. For now that is a mystery. Hopefully our research will turn up more complete objects with similar phallic mounts, or its context or associated objects might provide some clues. We might get really lucky and find the rest of the object to which it was originally attached. Fingers crossed.