An unusual Roman phallic carved antler from Colsterworth rediscovered

Phallic imagery is well known in Roman Britain, both in the number of examples we have and because the nature of the imagery attracts so much public comment. It served an apotropaic function, to ward off evil and protect an individual, family, building or even entire towns from unseen malevolent forces. The phallic imagery would be built into the structure or worn on the body of the person requiring protection. Children and the military seem to have been two groups for whom such protection was particularly relevant. Phallic imagery was also related to deities such as Priapus, where the phallus has understandable connections with fertility and growth, particularly in relation to gardens and agriculture.

Most phallic imagery in Britain is in the form of stone carvings (either incised or relief carved) or pendants of precious metal, copper alloy or bone. Pendants are known in various forms, some more naturalistic than others, but usually adhering to a small number of broadly consistent forms  (see here for a recently found example). Anatomical votives (models of parts of the body offered at healing shrines) in phallic form are also known from the Roman world, but not currently from Britain. This carved antler from Colsterworth is therefore extremely unusual in being a 3-dimensional representation of a phallus at (without wishing to enter into puerile arguments) approximately life size. It measures 10.5cm long and 2.5cm in diameter (stop it – I warned you about being puerile!). As far as I can tell it has never been published or studied before.

 

Antler phallus from Colsterworth

Antler phallus from Colsterworth. LCNGR : 1995.4472

It was donated to Grantham Museum in September 1932 by Mr Bailey of Colsterworth quarry, part of an assemblage found at the quarry earlier that year. The assemblage otherwise consists of a ceramic structure, interpreted at the time as a blast furnace, fired clay (some with finger marks and hobnailed boot prints) and a small selection of ceramic sherds, iron and coal. The Lincolnshire HER entry lists the other items but not the phallic antler, though the museum’s documentation is clear and consistent on its provenance. The interpretation of the structure as a blast furnace was detailed in an article by Hannah, but has since been questioned and the site is now believed to have been a pottery kiln. Hannah sadly did not mention any of the associated finds in his article and the exact relationship of the antler phallus, an unusual find in such an assemblage, to the ‘furnace’ is lost. Traces of Iron Age and Roman settlement have been discovered in the area, but the scale and nature of Roman occupation is generally not well understood. The profusion of valuable ironstone in the vicinity and the proximity of Ermine Street suggest that this would have been a desirable and profitable location. Stainby villa lay nearby to the west.

The Colsterworth 'furnace' in 1932

The Colsterworth ‘furnace’ in 1932

Fired clay with hobnail prints, Colsterworth

Fired clay with hobnail prints, Colsterworth

The antler carving depicts the shaft and head of a phallus, the head carefully worked and naturalistic. Tooling marks are still visible on both the shaft and head and the retention of some of the surface texture of the antler may have been deliberate, to give the item a more realistic, skin-like appearance. It is now completely hollow, though whether this was intentional or simply due to the deterioration of the softer antler core is difficult to say. Hollow phallic objects are not unknown. A ceramic greyware spout from Newport, Lincoln, is also hollow, but has a clear function as part of a vessel and was obviously intended to have liquid pass through it. Whether this was for serious ritual activity or ribald humour is not known, though the two need not be mutually exclusive. Unlike the ceramic spout, however, there is no evidence of how the antler may have been attached to and formed part of a larger object.  The closest parallel I can find from Britain is a clay phallus from Worcester, but I can find no information on its context.

Tip of the Colsterworth phallic antler

Tip of the Colsterworth phallic antler

Greyware phallic spout from Newport, Lincoln. The Collection

Greyware phallic spout from Newport, Lincoln. The Collection

Clay phallus from Worcester. Image by @Holland_Tom, tweeted 31 May 2016

Clay phallus, Worcester Museum. Image by @Holland_Tom, tweeted 31 May 2016

The choice of antler for the carving has practical advantages. The material was easy to obtain, matched the basic required shape, and is easy to carve. On another level, the association with a strong, masculine animal such as a stag may have been seen to mirror and even enhance the qualities of the finished carving. The stag was associated with the Iron Age deity Cernunnos, though we cannot prove an association here and the worship of Cernunnos is not otherwise attested in the area.

So what function can we ascribe to this 3-dimensional depiction? The media are always keen to use the word ‘dildo’ in any discussion of ancient phallic imagery, and in this instance the parallel is at least not impossible. Alternatively, the phallus may have formed part of a sculpture, perhaps of an ithyphallic deity and made entirely of organic materials. Another possibility is that it was displayed, maybe using the hollowed centre for suspension, to protect a working space. Perhaps it was buried as a votive offering, a foundation deposit to protect an industrial site, though the unknown context and the nature of the other items in the assemblage make this difficult to prove.

Although its detailed context and function remain obscure, such an unusual 3-dimensional representation is an important addition to the corpus of phallic imagery from Roman Britain, and deserves to be more widely known.


Bibliography

Hannah, Ian C. 1932. Roman Blast Furnace in Lincolnshire. Antiquaries Journal Vol 12, pp.262-68

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