New research at the Viminacium site in eastern Serbia, once capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, has made a remarkable find. As soon as archaeologists began their latest exploration of the city, they came across a unique object known as a wind chime ‘house guard’, in the shape of a winged phallus that served as a charm.
Frontier City of Western to Eastern Rome
Viminacium Archaeological Park is situated about 100km (70 miles) east of Belgrade by road, and was once one of the wealthy Illyrian cities of antiquity, later becoming an important capital city and military camp for the Roman Empire between the 1st and 4th centuries AD.
The site is vast and incorporates temples, thermal baths, the military camp, and the mausoleum of Emperor Hostilian, one of the shortest reigning emperors on record, only in position from around June to July 251 AD, before his untimely death.
More remarkable is the profusion of graves at the site, with over 14000 graves found there so far.
The original army camp grew and eventually became a significant city with a population estimated to be some 40,000 people. Viminacium had its own bathhouse and hippodrome, and it became the provincial capital of the important province of Moesia Superior. The city was destroyed by the Huns in the 5th century AD but was later re-built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. After a century of prosperity, the Slavs razed the city in the 7th century, and it was never reoccupied.
Archaeological research in Viminacium continues throughout the year, so it is not surprising that the discoveries of archaeologists sometimes ‘end up on the front pages of newspapers, internet portals and in breaking news on national television channels, reports Serbian language blog ‘Sve o arheologiji’ (All About Archaeology).
And a few days ago, such a find was made.
“Explorations of the civilian settlement (city) of Viminacium have just begun, and the first significant discoveries have already begun. During the excavation of one of the main city streets, the gate of one of the buildings was discovered. It was established that the building was destroyed in a fire, during which the porch collapsed and fell to the ground, and an object known in scientific circles as a ‘tintinnabulum’ [wind chime] was discovered in the layer of debris,” the Viminacium Archeological Park told All About Archaeology.
The original appearance of the Viminacium wind chime will be revealed following its conservation. However, what is already evident is the unique design at its core: the central element of the chime is the “fascinum,” a mystical figure depicted as a phallus with wings, legs, and an additional phallic tail. This central figure was adorned with four bells, noted the archaeologists.
Wind chimes are the ancient counterpart of today’s wind catchers, but their role and symbolism in the Roman world was far more layered and significant. They are hung in front of the doors of houses or rooms, so that when they make a sound in the wind, and also with their unusual appearance, they dispel evil forces and evil eyes.
Phallus-shaped objects are found on a wide range of Roman objects, from amulets to frescoes to mosaics and lamps, and even as far as on Hadrian’s wall at the other extreme of the empire.
Although it might seem that Romans were obsessed with their genitals, they were a symbol thought to bring good luck and drive away evil spirits. For the Romans, such objects did not have an erotic character. This part of the human body was considered an effective weapon in the fight against the evil eye, and was also a bringer of good luck.
It was practically essential for any responsible Roman parents to provide their children with phallic amulets, or at least to have them painted on their wall. Given that at this time, children were quite sickly and child mortality high, such measures were deemed prudent.
Wings are believed to have been added to phallic charms to make them more effective in warding off evil.
“It was for this reason that the owner of the building in the Viminacium hung the wind chime outside his gate. He believed that this object had powerful magical properties that could help him,” the archaeologists from Viminacium concluded.
Top image: The moment of the discovery of the wind chime in Viminacium. Source: Ilija Danković, Archaeological Institute