Rare Ancient Millstone Found Decorated With A Roman Phallus Carving
When archaeologists pieced together a broken millstone they were shocked to find an ancient Roman phallus carving. Experts say that the Roman phallus decoration is both “highly significant” and rare.
The broken millstone bearing the ancient carving was discovered during major roadworks between Cambridge and Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, England between 2017 and 2018. It is just one of more than 300 examples of hand mills and millstones that were discovered during the work. Cambridgeshire Live reports that the broken millstone was only recently put back together, which was when the Roman phallus was discovered.
Archaeologists say that it is very rare for experts to find a Romano-British millstone bearing this kind of carving. Dr. Ruth Shaffrey, from Oxford Archaeology, explained:
“As one of only four known examples of Romano-British millstones decorated this way, the A14 millstone is a highly significant find. It offers insights into the importance of the mill to the local community and to the protective properties bestowed upon the millstone and its produce - the flour - by the depiction of a phallus on its upper surface.”
Dr. Ruth Shaffrey and the millstone bearing the Roman phallus carving. (Highways England)
The Prevalence of the Roman Phallus
Phallic imagery is prevalent in ancient Roman art and iconography. The phallus was a popular symbol for virility and strength and it was often worn as an amulet or drawn on a location to provide the wearer or site with protection and good luck. For example, baby boys were often given a special locket called a bulla containing a phallus amulet to wear around their necks and protect them from evil. Traditionally they wore this from the time they were nine days old until they were declared citizens.
Roman phallus windchimes, tintinnabula, were sculpted in bronze and often depicted a penis with wings. These artifacts were commonly found in Pompeii gardens. Phallic imagery also appears in relief on wall panels, such as a famous example at a Pompeii bakery, described below.
A Roman phallus windchime discovered in Pompeii and on display in the Secret Cabinet of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 2.5)
Steve Sherlock, Highways England's archaeology lead for the roadwork project says that images of the phallus and milling were inter-related for the Romans, “This millstone is important as it adds to the evidence for such images from Roman Britain” Sherlock said, “There were known associations between images of the phallus and milling, such as those found above the bakeries of Pompeii, one inscribed with 'Hic habitat felicitas' - 'You will find happiness here.’”
Not Always Symbolic
Undoubtedly, Roman phallus drawings provided different messages, based on the context. While Roman soldiers bore Roman phallus amulets to provide them with a boost of good luck in battle, they also added penis carvings to the caricatures, writing, and other graffiti on Hadrian’s wall and other sites as well. Were those phallic engravings meant to enhance the site’s protection? Maybe.
However, as an All That’s Interesting article discussing the prevalence of phallic imagery in ancient Rome also notes, “Of course, ancient Roman phalluses were also the favorite subject of graffiti. Cobblestones in Pompeii are marked with the symbol to indicate the way to a brothel, not to mention the myriad of phalluses ribboned around messages like “I screwed the barmaid.”
As you can see, a Roman phallus image could be full of symbolic meaning, but other times the artist behind a penis drawing just wanted to be funny.
Top Image: The millstone with an ancient Roman phallus engraving. Source: Highways England
By Alicia McDermott