In Current Archaeology #284 (November), Rob Collins has an insightful piece on an intriguing little metal-detector find documented through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It’s a cast copper-alloy erotic miniature sculptural group, apt to excite both a person’s scholarly and prurient interest.
At first glance, frankly, it just looks like a threesome. Once you’ve untangled the participants though, you find a man and a woman back to back (as on Yvonne Gilbert’s sleeve image for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s 1983 single ”Relax”), emphatically not getting it on together for anatomical reasons, and both in an attitude of passive dejection. The third figure is more actively posed, phallic, and seems to be depicted at the moment of choosing whether to bone the woman or bugger the man, both of whom are conveniently placed for penetration. Active Man is wearing only a low cylindrical cap. Woman is wearing a neck ring and possibly a belt. Passive Man, nude, is cradling a severed head. What does this all mean?!
Let us start with Place. The find was made at Syston in Lincolnshire, eastern England. As for Time, Collins calls the piece ”Roman” (or ”Romano-British” in a figure caption), that is, 1st though 4th century AD. And finally, the lower end of the piece identifies it as an ornate knife handle. Erotic knife handles are in fact a recognised artefact category in this milieu – another example here.
Collins offers an ethno-political explanation for the composition that strikes me as quite convincing. Who, in Roman Britain, wears neck rings and takes heads as trophies? Unpacified, non-Romanised, tribal, Celtic-speaking Britons do. Who, in the Roman art of the period, wears cylindrical caps? Soldiers and emperors do. So in Collins’s reading, this is not simply pornography: it’s a comment on the Roman Conquest, when the Britons got screwed over (figuratively and in all likelihood literally) by the Roman legions. Neat!