In honour of this year’s Valentine’s Day, the Archaeological Archive is showcasing the smuttier side of its collections, looking at ‘erotic’ objects from across the ages.
The archive has several Roman objects carved or moulded into the shapes of penises and vulvas. While to modern eyes these items might seem to be rather sexual, for the average Roman they were no more erotic than a four-leaf clover. They were lucky charms used to protect people and places from harm, with phallus and vulva symbols also associated with fertility.
Early societies depended heavily on the fertility of their crops, animals and themselves for survival. These vulnerable things needed to be protected from bad weather, disease and disaster, which is where the link between fertility and protection comes from. The Romans added fertility symbols to all kinds of everyday objects and points of vulnerability such as bridges, street corners, doorways and bathhouses – this was to ward off the evil eye and keep people safe. One Roman phallus on display in the museum’s gallery even has the word ‘FELICE’ (meaning lucky, happy and fortunate) scratched onto it to increase its powers.
Later on in time some objects start to take on a more sexual meaning. One example from the archive is a 14th-century badge depicting a cock mating with a hen (above). In medieval times cock birds were a symbol of lust and adultery, and being ‘cocky’ meant being lecherous. The haunts of prostitutes had names like ‘Cock Lane’ near Newgate, which still exists today. There was a medieval bawdy poem called ‘I have a gentil cock‘ which begins ‘I have a gentil cock, croweth me day…’ and ends ‘and every night he pertcheth him in my lady’s chamber’.
Another medieval object, a pendant this time, looks quite innocent until you read the French words ‘CON POR AMOVRS’ on it (meaning ‘c**t for love’) and then you realise that the pendant is in the shape of a vulva. The original label written for this object when it was found was ‘horse collar pendant’ – it just shows that every object needs to be closely examined to find out what it really is! Why these objects were worn and who by is an interesting topic for debate…
The 18th century was a period notorious for licentious behaviour and there is one object in the archive collections that demonstrates that more than any other – a beautifully decorated ceramic cup in the shape of a penis. You could have drunk from either the cup end or through the hole in the tip of the penis. But who would have used this? It was found on a site at Paternoster Square in the City of London, a place teeming with taverns in the 18th century. It’s possible that this cup was used at a gentlemen’s club or brothel for bawdy drinking games.
These objects and more are part of our latest archaeological archive tour – Shoreditch’s saucy side – on 1 and 7 February 2014.
Happy Valentine’s day!