Getting Screwed Over By The Romans

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.

LIN5418b loresAt 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!


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The knife reminds me of Tut's bows with the head of a Nubian at one end and the head of a Libyan at the other. He could strangle the wretched foreigner every time he strung the bow. Wallace McLeod published them I think.

Or the 17th century man-o-war Wasa which carried among its many sculptures a frightened Pole cowering under a bench. He looks a lot like Lech Walesa.

This find is in my book, Britain's Secret Treasures! There have been two other 'threesome' knife handles found in Britain, but none anywhere else in the Roman world. Definitely a local link. My fave theory is it represents a popular folk tale that would be instantly recognisable - like a lewd Punch and Judy (with an extra chap and a head, obv!). Definitely might still have the political/power undertone as well. LOVE this find.

By Mary-Ann Ochota (not verified) on 31 Oct 2013 #permalink