Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient stone barrier that cuts across England from coast to coast, is a Roman fort called Vindolanda. Built around 85 A.D. and occupied for more than 300 years, Vindolanda was the tense interstice between empire and unoccupied frontier—a largely self-contained city at the edge of the Roman world. Today, surrounded by green, picturesque countryside, it is a wellspring of insight into the human past.
Thousands of wooden objects have been found at Vindolanda, most of them mundane—bits of wheels, remnants of furniture, a toilet seat. Rob Sands, an assistant professor in archaeology at University College Dublin, was recently examining these objects for an upcoming exhibit when he came across one particular artifact and did a double take. The artifact’s official description labeled it as a darning tool, a crafting device that helps secure fibers and can be shaped like a mushroom or maraca. But to Sands, the “darning tool” looked much more like a wooden penis.