Hadrian’s Wang: Erotic graffiti found at Hadrian’s Wall

Written by National, News

Archaeologists at Newcastle University have been working to record various pieces of graffiti made at Gelt Woods quarry, Cumbria, over 1800 years ago. 

The quarry is a site close to Hadrian’s Wall but the graffiti was not made until nearly 80 years after the wall had been completed. Roman soldiers were making repairs to the frontier and must have spent their downtime etching into the quarry the same sort of thing that one would see on a toilet door in Sinners today. One example of such graffiti is the engraving of a generously proportioned phallus.

However, there may have been a deeper meaning to these markings than first expected. For the Romans, images of the penis were a good luck symbol, used to ward off misfortune and protect those in the vicinity. This could be where the term, ‘get lucky’, comes from, though granted it’s unlikely. Because of these ancient connotations, such graffiti is not even unusual around Roman landmarks. Newcastle University Archaeology lecturer, Rob Collins said that he has so far catalogued 57 other examples of saucy symbols just along Hadrian’s Wall.


Emperor Hadrian of Hadrian’s Wall


It wasn’t just ancient erotica that the Newcastle team recorded at the site; there is also a caricature of the Roman commanding officer as well as the names, ranks and units of some of the soldiers. This information has helped to give historians insight into the organisational structure of the Roman army when engaged in large repair operations. It also makes historical study that bit more personal as, through these physical marks left centuries ago, those in the present can connect with the past. Unfortunately, public access to the site was lost in 1980 when the main footpath collapsed, making a safe trip down the quarry all but impossible.

All of these inscriptions will be recorded and digitised by the archaeology team because the rock surface where they are found will be destroyed by weathering over the next few years, making them unrecognisable. The inscriptions were discovered in the 18th century but have become more and more damaged as time has passed. It was decided that the time as now right to make a permanent 3D digital replication of them before they are lost forever. The researchers had to abseil down the quarry in order to view the inscriptions. Whilst it’s easy to make a joke about there being one more dick pic on the internet, this is also important preservation work, as many significant historical finds are lost to the elements every year.

Last modified: 19th March 2019

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