Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Metal Detectorist's Flaccid or not Flaccid, Roman or Not-Roman Penis Pendant Discussed by UK Court


    Roman or Asian folk art? (Photo: PAS who say it's Roman)    
There is some tittering on a Kent newspaper over a recent metal detectorist's find (Sean McPolin, 'Rare Roman penis pendant found by metal detectorist Wendy Thompson' Kent Online, 29 May 2022).

Metal detectorist Wendy Thompson discovered the phallic amulet while searching a farm in Higham, near Gravesend and Strood. Mrs Thompson, who lives on the High Street in Lydd, found the cast silver item on December 31, 2020 [...] Coroner Roger Hatch described the item, detailing its "foreskin, shaft and pubes", before reading a short report from the British Museum. The report said it was hard to narrow down an exact date for the pendant but believes the phallic nature of it "points to the Roman era". It added: "This is the first silver item of its class and is a significant national find".
The news item did not report that the object was not identified or reported by an FLO, but the record (PUBLIC-E168F3) was created by a volunteer member of the public with an unknown amount of input from anyone else (PAS records are now published anonymously). There are problems with the phrasing and the account concentrates largely on the metal it is cast from. The purported parallels taken almost entirely from the PAS' own database totally miss the mark (in passing it may be be noted that the use of the term term "flaccid phallus" is found mainly among archaeologists and ornithologists - since a phallus φαλλός is by etymology and definition an erect penis). The anonymous author notes
"This example is different in form to most example recorded on the database however, with the omission of testicles, and the inclusion of pubic hair. [...] It is not possible to narrowly date this pendant, as not direct parallel with secure dating evidence can be found. The large corpus of phallic imagery across the Roman Empire however, strongly points to a exclusively 'Roman' tradition, and thus, in the case of phallic objects found in Roman Britain, a date of 43-410 AD can be confidently (sic) assigned".
There is another difference the confident, but anonymous author did not note. The vast majority of the phallic amulets from the Roman Empire, so not just Britain, have the suspension loop on the dorsal surface of the phallus, apparently intending to suggest (or, where the balance produced by the position of the testes is correct, effect) that the penis is suspended projecting horizontally. This one has the suspension loop underneath, where the missing testes should be. Also the Higham pendant has a very thickened distal end, whereas most Roman phallic talismans (both the real ones and the fake ones on eBay) go for length rather than girth, and tend to be more evenly cylindrical.

I really find it incomprehensible that in assessing a loose metal object from the top 25 cm of cultivated land (it says in their own record) a recorder did not ask him or herself the obvious question, where else could this have come from? An anomalous object like this found loose with no context needs always  to be considered as a potential modern intrusion, perhaps lost by a collector, a traveller, a local from a minority culture, or even planted deliberately (as a joke or to give paying members something interesting to find on a long-past club dig or rally). 

Phallic amulets and talismans are not restricted to Europe or the Romans, and certainly not just the first four centuries AD, and it is bonkers to think that they even could be. There are a whole range of them in other countries, ancient and modern. In particular they are found as the Buddhist Palad Khik amulets in SE Asia (Thailand) in particular. These have a variety of shapes and come in a variety of materials and price ranges, but generally stress girth (boosting the wearer's feeling of male strength). Some of the traditional ones also differ from the Roman ones by many of them having the suspension loop at the proximal end, or sometimes underneath so they hang pointing downwards. There is also a series of necklaces from at least two areas of Africa that have long metal beads, looped at one end projecting laterally from a necklace string and separated from each other by spacer beads. 

While I have not searched for a specific parallel, I consider that to ignore the existence of this body of material (by those who ARE paid to do that research) to be a serious lack of due diligence. 

After all, the law is that to be Treasure there has to be more than 10% precious metal there and the object has to be more than 300 years old. It is not stated in the report how the metal was established  (was an analysis done? This object was recorded in a state already cleaned down to bare metal, so we cannot see the corrosion. Is it really silver and not some other white metal used for making charms? How can it be said on the evidence presented by the PAS that this dates to before 1721 (when we can still buy such amulets on eBay prior to our date with some local farm lass for a romp in the haystack)? There is no evidence from that PUBLIC PAS report that either have actually been demonstrated. 

Without a context, and without a properly-grounded precise parallel, it could equally be an entirely modern loss of an object knocked up in a Bangkok garage workshop and made of a completely non-precious metal from melted down scrap. It may not be, but until the PAS can provide evidence of better research, and a properly-grounded parallel, that possibility cannot be ruled out, and the law cannot be applied based on mere guesswork - whoever did it.

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