A carving of a phallus in a rock would probably seem like the handiwork of a bored youth today, but such imagery was especially common in ancient Greece and Rome as a symbol of good luck rather than a sexual reference. The Collection Museum in Lincolnshire recently acquired one large limestone example that dates between the second and fourth centuries, which had previously been privately owned and kept as a pretty unique garden ornament for the past two decades. It will make its public debut later this year, entering the museum’s main archaeological gallery alongside other Roman stoneworks from the county of Lincolnshire, England.
Originally from the village of Braceby, the faint and roughly cut relief shows an erect phallus aimed at a round object above it, which the museum’s curator of archaeology, Antony Lee, has identified as either a vagina or an evil eye. The latter, according to Lee, is more likely: the round symbol traditionally represents an unspecified threat, and archaeologists believe the carving was originally inserted into the wall of a building as a mark of defense.
“For most people, the phallus represented a good luck symbol, serving an apotropaic function — warding off bad fortune,” Lee told Hyperallergic over email. “Phalluses can be found carved on the outside of shops and buildings, on flagstones in the streets, in private homes and gardens, and worn as pendants. The wearing of phallic pendants seems to have had particular resonance with soldiers and young children, perhaps two groups who needed particular protection from unknown and unseen bad fortune.”
The Braceby carving, which measures 15-and-a-half inches long, 11 inches wide, and 6 inches deep, is the first phallic image from Lincolnshire to feature an evil eye. The seminal discovery of the carving occurred in 1995, when the finder was gardening. Although identified at the time as an ancient artifact, it remained in the family’s possession — “definitely a talking point at barbecues,” as Lee points out —until the residents moved away, donating it to the museum so it would remain in its home county.
Likely intended to guard against broad, rather than specific, evils, the Braceby carving is just one example of centuries-old phallic imagery, which Lee describes as “surprisingly common” in ancient Greece and Rome. The phallus, representing virility and fertility, was associated with deities such as Bacchus and Priapus — the latter identified by a not-so-subtle shaft — and often appeared with evil eyes. A bas-relief from the city of Leptis Magna boasts a curious hind-legged penis ejaculating into a heavy-lashed eye; a mosaic from Antioch shows a well-endowed dwarf attacking another eye.
The Collection Museum itself owns many examples of phallic imagery. Another wall carving, rendered in high relief, arrived from the Roman city walls of Lincoln at East Bight, while one from Long Bennington shows a figure mounted on a two-legged phallus. Other members appear on pendants, including one from a Roman villa near Sudbrooke and a “fist and phallus” pendant carved from bone. The latter, Lee said, was associated with the Roman army and forms a gesture known as “mano fico” — another symbol to ward off misfortune. With the forthcoming display of the Braceby carving, these will no doubt face stiff competition for visitors’ attention.