Threesome + extra head on Roman knife handle

This is not a new find but it’s new to me and it’s too awesome not post about. In 2008, metal detectorist David Barker found a bronze Roman knife handle buried under a farmer’s field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t a big money find, but what made it stand out was its erotic design. There’s a male on the right engaging in coitus with a woman facing him, her legs around his waist. A second male figure is behind her, his back to hers. In his arms he’s holding a decapitated head, clasping it to his chest.

Erotic knife handles have been found before in Britain, but they’re rare. None of them also include a severed head, which makes this particular artifact unique, as far as we know.

Barker reported his find to the Portable Antiques Scheme and then sold it for just under £1,000 (ca $1,500) in December of that year to Lincoln museum The Collection which put it on display in its Roman gallery.

Collections officer at The Collection, Antony Lee, believes it is the cheekiest relic ever to be unearthed in Lincolnshire.

He said: “This has to be one of the county’s rudest finds. We have had some amazing finds in the past, but nothing quite this overt. The Romans certainly seemed to have no trouble expressing themselves. Other erotic knife handles have been found all over Britain, but ours is the only one with a decapitated head. It created quite a stir among staff and we’re expecting it to continue to draw lots of interest from the public.”

Mr Lee believes the knife dates from the 4th century and that it was fashioned for a specific and delicate task.

He said “We don’t yet know the full significance of the decapitated head, but we think it may not be as dark as it seems. For the Romans, decapitation was regarded with some reverence and respect.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about this piece, on top of the mysterious role of the decapitated head in the ménage à trois. It might not even be a knife handle, for example, but the grip of some other tool.

Lincolnshire finds liaison officer Adam Daubney, to whom Barker first reported his discovery, thinks that it might be a symbolic design not meant to be read as a literal threesome with severed head. The imagery could have some religious significance for 4th century Britons, or it could be something as simple as a scene from the theater.

15 thoughts on “Threesome + extra head on Roman knife handle

  1. The fact that it’s Roman-era doesn’t necessarily make it Roman. My bet is it’s a scene from a British myth that hasn’t survived. (I guess it could be a Roman myth too, but they’re better documented and so less likely to escape history’s notice.) There’s a lot of precedent for that sort of sex/violence juxtaposition in myth. Think of Set killing and chopping up Osiris in Egyptian mythology, followed by Isis reassembling him, wrapping him up into the first mummy, and lying with him (and giving birth to Horus). Then there’s Cronos cutting off Oranos’ genitals in Greek mythology; Oranos’ blood hits the sea, a foam rises, and out if it comes Aphrodite, the goddess of sex. (One has to wonder what this sex/violence connection says about all of us. :skull: )

  2. Well, it is hard to tell, really, if the loose head is facing toward and down the holder, as though about to perform a sexual act, or facing out and away from the holder. If facing toward and down, performing an act, I’d say it is likely just missing another part of whatever it was a handle to… say, for example, it was a handle to some object in a brothel, with two handles very close together, they could have one of the figures in the dual handles reaching over from one to the other. I’ll bet, of not destroyed, there’s another similar handle with a decapitated body leaning out and away, while another couple are similarly involved on that handle as on this handle… thus, altogether, a six-way, rather than a 3.33 way…

    1. I don’t know about reverence, but decapitation was definitely considered a more honorable means of execution. It’s relatively painless and clean, unlike other popular methods of Roman execution (crucifixion most prominently). Only Roman citizens were allowed to be beheaded.

  3. That quote pretty much sounds indeed like nonsense to me. Even though decapitation might be regarded as being more ‘respectful’ than e.g. sending offenders ‘ad bestias’.

    Antony Lee is probably right, when he calls the ‘respectful’ roman decapitation “one of rudest finds”. Contrastingly, headhunting seems to have a certain tradition among celtic tribesmen. For a roman piece, however, this find looks rather clumsy.

    Whatever all this -including my silly remarks- could mean, don’t lose your heads in (extra?) marital affairs. Cum panem et circenses, Merry Christmas ! :hattip:

  4. Not sure it’s a knife handle, seems like it would be uncomfortable to use, and not just because of what it portrays. And doesn’t it
    seem like the lady is up too high to be, um,”engaging” the guy on the left? It looks to me like he’s aiming for the cutie on the right. If this is a scene from the theater of the time, I have new respect for these people, they were freaky.

  5. Sex for power was commonplace among Romans. Sex was about dominance and submission more than reproduction. The handle clearly depicts a sex for pleasure I.e. sex for power scene. So this knife handle was probably a symbol of power in some ceremony.

  6. I agree – it doesn’t look to me like he’s engaging the woman, but that he’s got his member in the other man’s posterior and she’s caught in the middle. Plus, both the woman and the man holding the head have a “surprised” look to me – she’s surprised to be missed, and the receiver is surprised to be receiving. Maybe it’s a joke piece. And, I’d also agree that it’s far less likely to be a severed head and that the man holding the head is probably receiving … pleasure from the head. Must we be such prudes that the first thought is they’ve got a decapitated head as part of their sex act? That’s just gross.

    Part of a larger orgy piece, most likely. Cheeky stuff indeed!

  7. I have one of these in solid silver dug up 60 years ago in hertfordshire it is similar in every way to the lincs. example but no severed head

  8. If I wasn’t seeing the severed head with my own eyes, I probably wouldn’t believe it. $1,000 isn’t a bad find though. Interesting find here.

  9. How about this interpretation: the small figure is a child, it’s father was killed (the head), it’s mother is trying to protect it, while being raped. And the rapist celebrates this feat with this object.

    1. (I would like to point out that my idiotic keyboard autocorrected all “its” to “it’s” – yet, of course, it’s my fault not having seen it before submitting.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.