Friday, January 6, 2017

Domination's the name of the game: A Dress Fastener from Co. Tyrone and Fetish Wear in the Bronze Age

[The case has been made to me that certain aspects of this post are unsuitable for younger readers. In particular, the feedback I’ve received has been that both the title of the piece and the inclusions of links to ‘+18’ sites are problematic. I make no apology for either of these. The original title was deliberately provocative to attract attention and the links were necessary to provide references and proofs of my research. Nonetheless, I think there may be some merit in making a more ‘family friendly’ version available. To this end, I have reverted the title I used for an earlier draft and removed all of the hyperlinks in the text, including those to non-controversial sites. The only change to the text has been to edit the note regarding the source of the title. Otherwise, everything remains unchanged. The original, unexpurgated, version remains available to those want it.]

Of all the beautiful Bronze Age gold items held by the National Museum of Ireland, I have a special affection for this particular one, known as a ‘Dress Fastener’, from Killymoon Demesne, Co. Tyrone. Sure, it’s gorgeous and oh-so-gold … but that’s not what intrigues me about it. It’s the fact that it was discovered in a simple wooden box. It’s exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t usually survive and gives us a fleeting glimpse into how these beautiful objects would have been cared for and curated.

The above was, pretty much, the entirety of what I had intended to say about it.
1) Beautiful gold
2) wooden box
3) General loveliness …

Except that’s not exactly how things worked out …

When I posted this image on social media, a little good-natured discussion about the function and naming of such artefacts ensued. The first part of the discussion centred on the usefulness of the term ‘Dress Fastener’ … the name comes from the 19th century belief that they were literally used to close a cloak or cape of some kind. As they were gold and decorated they could easily demonstrate power, wealth, status and whatever else you care to mention. The problem with this is that they’re not eminently practical … if you’re looking to close a cloak there are plenty of easier ways of doing it. And this is where the viewpoints really diverge – some felt that when it comes to practicality, that should be the ‘acid test’ … if it doesn’t work well for the purpose suggested, it’s unlikely to have been used for that. The other side is that – as we see with some modern status symbols – they don’t have to be particularly practical to convey the message of power. Think of Lamborghinis … they look great and send some very clear messages about wealth and status … but they’re hardly a practical means of ferrying a bunch of small kids to football practice, or bringing home a week’s shopping. So, practicality may not be the final arbiter here. Other suggested uses included as bracelets … though, again the dichotomy between practicality and symbolism remains. I’ve occasionally wondered if they’re not intended to be carried and displayed as a symbol of rank, similar to military batons or regal sceptres. Certainly, the tradition is of considerable antiquity and this use would obviate the questions around wearability. Further, all hand movements would accentuate its presence and the status of the holder. Not a bad idea … and, like all the others, rather unprovable.

I was half-way through composing the thoughts above into something resembling a coherent statement when someone (you know who you are!) suggested that the Killymoon example is too small to be a bracelet. Instead it could have been used as a pendant or something similar to cufflinks. There was a quick retort that the Killymoon artefact was some 76mm across the bow, so perfectly feasible as a bracelet. However, that post also had a single word suggestion that completely changed how I will forever see these artefacts … that word was ‘cock ring’!

I’ll admit that my initial reaction was a straightforward ‘no’ … to be fair, a second, more thoughtful, consideration of the idea resulted in a ‘Hell no!’ … but when I thought about it still more I realised that my dismissal was mostly based on the fact that I don’t wear one, so I reckoned that other people don’t wear them … and that people in the past didn’t wear them. This line of reasoning is always seductive – seeing the past not only as a mirror of the present, but as a mirror of current middle class propriety – but is most probably wrong! Think about Mary Cahill’s excellent work in rethinking the Bronze Age gold ‘boxes’ as ear spools and how a much more plausible function could be postulated once we moved away from safe and cosy interpretations found within ‘mainstream’ society [here | here].

Once I got past my disagreement that people of the past would have embraced ‘that sort of thing’, I next reasoned that it couldn’t be a cock ring as it wasn’t an actual ‘ring’ … I probably would have left it right there had it not been for one small fact: gin! My lovely wife had bought me a bottle of rather wonderful Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin and I had imbibed of its ginny goodness … a bit. It was for that reason I decided that it was a perfectly wonderful idea to Google ‘cock ring’ in the hopes of proving or disproving the availability of what may be described as a ‘lobed, penannular’ form, rather than the wholly annular variety.

The things I do for archaeology!

Horseshoe cock ring sold by

I’ve seen a whole lot of wieners in the last while … a whole lot dressed up in rings, piercings, cages, and a plethora of other stuff I really hadn’t expected. Based on this less than rigorous research, I can confirm that cock rings similar to Dress Fasteners do exist. The chief one I found (currently on sale at £17.99 – down from £23.99 at is called (unsurprisingly) a Horseshoe cock ring and features an penannular ring with lobate terminals. A second example from the leaves-little-to-the-imagination-titled vendor Penis Plugs Ablaze boasts that it is constructed of ‘highest quality German surgical stainless steel’ and is ‘heavy as f**k’ (priced at $66, but currently out of stock). True, neither are an exact match for the Killymoon Dress Fastener, but it hardly strains credulity to imagine that – in design terms – they are related. Based on the photographs of the second example, it is clear that it is intended to be worn with the penis and scrotum on one side of the ring and the gentleman’s body on the other (making it technically a cock-and-ball ring, rather than just a cock ring). This is in contrast to the ‘true’ cock ring that is worn at the junction of the penis and the testicles. It is also clear from the photographs that the terminals are intended to rest upwards – on the upper surface of the penis. It is also abundantly clear from the photographs that the wearer was having a really good time … proceed with caution!

Horseshoe cock ring sold by Penis Plugs Ablaze

Horseshoe cock ring sold by Penis Plugs Ablaze

There’s only one slight problem … our first modern horseshoe version comes in two diameters – 45mm and 50mm … while the second one has an internal diameter of 44mm … both are quite a way below Killymoon’s 76mm (maximum). I’m disinclined to believe that our Bronze Age forbearers were so spectacularly over endowed in comparison to modern men. I did joke to my correspondents on social media that gold is fairly malleable and it may have been possible to manually resize the item to something a bit more ‘snug’ as desired, though I’m not sure how much weight I’d put in that observation. Instead, it is possible that the more important measurement is the smaller gap between the terminals and the back of the Dress Fastener. I’ve not been able to ascertain this exact dimension, but from the available photographs it certainly looks like it may well be around the 45-50mm range. If that were about right, it would be wholly within the bounds of possibility that dress fasteners could have been worn in this manner. Of course, ‘could’ does not equal ‘did’, but there remains an intriguing possibility.

I’m repeatedly drawn back to an old quote (often attributed to Oscar Wilde) that I most recently heard on the US remake of House of Cards: “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” We repeatedly (rightly or wrongly) fall back to ideas of the past where power is reflected in and maintained through prestige items, such as the Dress Fasteners. When we come to Iron Age and Early Medieval ideas of Kingship we’re pretty good at making those links between the physical perfection of the King and his quasi sexual relationship with the land and the fertility and fecundity that are dependent upon that relationship. However, we may yet have a way to go before we adequately add physical sexual characteristics into our common understanding of power in prehistoric Ireland. Instead of viewing sexuality in the past through the inherited lens of Victorian mores, perhaps we need to reimagine societies where the display of genitalia (both male and female) was used to emphasise and display the wearer’s sexual prowess and, by extension, their military vigour and/or fitness to rule. In such a scenario one could imagine a tribal leader presenting himself to his people in all his finery – wearing a gorget around his neck, his ear lobes stretched to accommodate a pair of fine gold boxes that catch the sun with every turn of his head … and his crowning glory … his stiffened member resplendent, clamped in a fine golden cock ring, demonstrating to the assembly (and the ever-watching gods) his fitness to rule and the continued fruitfulness of the land in his care.

I may have to go have a little lie down after that image … dear lord! …

A particular problem with this idea is, of course, that there is no evidence in prehistory for cock rings or cock-and-ball rings ever being worn. Except, that isn’t true! Or … at least it may not be true! My (admittedly brief) research has thrown up a small number of internet sites that purport to tell the history of the cock ring. I have been unable to verify any of the details gleaned in this manner in credible (preferably peer reviewed) publications. I also would note that the Wikipedia entry for the cock ring includes no history or discussion of the origin and antiquity of the device. My reticence is based on the oft-repeated, but completely fake history of the Prince Albert piercing. The story that the piercing was invented by Albert, the Prince Consort, ‘to tame the appearance of his large penis in tight trousers’ is a fabrication created by Doug Malloy in the 1970s and has no basis in fact. For all that, and until such time as I can find independent verification or denial, I give the historical snippets as I have found them … add appropriately sceptical volumes of salt to taste ...

Roman amulet - decidedly not a cock ring!

The Cumm UK website claims that the ancient Chinese were the first to use cock rings. These were formed from the eyelids of goats, with the eyelashes left intact. Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1388-1644 AD) cock rings were made from jade or ivory, and some were even encrusted with jewels. In answer to the question ‘Did people wear cock rings in the ancient times?’ on, Michelle Adams (self-described ‘Sex Toy Reviewer, DJ, Video Editor, Dog Lover’) answers in the affirmative. She uses a curious turn of phrase, stating: ‘The first cock rings [sic.] was found in Greece, however, the first documented use of cock ring was in china [sic.]’. If I read this correctly, she is stating that the oldest physically surviving rings were found in Greece, though there is documentary evidence for earlier examples from China. She dates the Chinese invention to the Jin Dynasty, stating that they became popular during the Song and Ming Dynasties. Unfortunately, this is difficult to fathom as there are two Jin Dynasties. There is the Jin Gynasty commonly known as Sima Jin and Liang Jin that dates to the period from 265-420 AD and the Great Jin that ran from 1115 to 1234 AD. I presume she is referring to the latter as it was broadly concurrent with the Song Dynasty that survived from 960-1279 AD. The same source also shows an image of a multi-membered amulet with a large ring, though no particular scale is shown. While this form of amulet was rather common in the Roman world and was worn as a good luck totem to ward off the evil eye - usually as a pendant around the neck or attached to a belt, rather than in the manner of cock rings described here. I am especially grateful to one of my correspondents who informs me that this particular example was most likely intended to be displayed on a horse harness. The website (which, let’s be frank, doesn’t appear to be the most reliable news outlet) reiterates the pretty icky goat eyelid story and claims a Chinese origin around 1200 AD. It also illustrates a jade cock ring, but appears to suggest that it is a modern example rather than an ancient one. The Image credit is given as, but I cannot find any similar items on their website. I think we can be clear that the ‘historical evidence’ currently leaves much to be desired, but may well be a fruitful avenue for careful research.

Modern? cock ring in jade

By no means can I confidently state that Dress Fasteners were really used as cock rings, but the more I think on it, the more I think it an interesting avenue of enquiry that deserves further serious study.

Next Steps …
Obviously, the historical background needs to be properly investigated and published. Beyond that I think we need some grant money to push this forward. I’m thinking that we start with the purchase of a few modern replicas before going down the experimental archaeology route of selecting a willing post-graduate or two to look at aspects of the manufacture and wearing of the items. Beyond that we urgently need a wholesale reassessment of Bronze Age metalwork in Ireland and across the continent. A few long weekends in an assortment of fetish clubs and allied dens of iniquity shouldn’t be ruled out either … field work, don’t you know!

Further thoughts …
In my research for this piece, I came across an amazing example in sterling silver, decorated with carnelian cabochons from WikedIntent. It is a truly beautiful piece of craftsmanship, but it strikes me that an ancient example, if found out of context, would be more easily described as a penannular brooch that was missing its’ pin, rather than a cock ring. Maybe we also need to revisit our collections of Early Medieval metalwork too …

Horseshoe cock ring sold by WikedIntent
A bronze zoomorphic, penannular brooch with decorated terminals. The pin is missing.The brooch was found in Co Cork. Hunt Collection

But … that very same site has a wide variety of cock rings (many, quite attractively priced in the £15-20 range) that are made of beads. These rings are composed of various forms of spherical and cylindrical beads of both glass and metal [see examples: here | here | here]. Suddenly a whole new vista for the interpretation of glass beads opens up … not everything has to be a necklace or a bracelet!

Beaded cock ring sold by WikedIntent

It also strikes me (and at least one of my correspondents) that if we are to reimagine the role of the Dress Fastener we should expand the research to all surviving items from our prehistoric past. Obviously, the rather phallic looking Ralaghan Figure, from Co. Cavan would need to be reassessed in this context. However, so too should objects like the chain-link collar from Roscommon, Co. Roscommon (dated to 900-500 BC). I have long-thought it a curious, and borderline S&M inspired, object.

Chain-link collar from Roscommon, Co. Roscommon

Perhaps we should begin to rethink our ideas of prehistoric warriors from something like this:

'Celtic' Warriors

To something like this …

Depeche Mode's wonderful Martin Gore

If you were one of the people involved in this online discussion and you’re wondering why you’re not named for your specific contributions to the discoveries we made, the reason is simple. I like you and, as some of you have careers in archaeology, that I don’t want to see you ruined by association! …

Should you – for whatever reason – wish to indulge your interests in this matter, Lovehoney provide instructions on how to measure oneself to ensure a correctly fitted cockring: here.

The title, ‘Domination's the name of the game’, is taken from Depeche Mode’s 1984 single Master and Servant. But, of course, you knew that 

It gives me no small amount of pleasure to think that future students of these beautiful Dress Fasteners, should they wish to appear comprehensive in their reading and in the compilation of their bibliographies, will simply have to reference this paper … you’re welcome!

Note (Morning of January 1st 2017). I woke this morning and was suddenly struck by the memory that many of the gentlemen cock ring wearers I've found pictures of on the internet (healthy young men that they are) are bearded or quite stubley, but their genitals are remarkably follicle-free ... perhaps it was similar in the Bronze Age and those lovely razors were never really intended for going near a face, but were developed for the purpose of pubic topiary ... 

Bronze Age razor from Booltiaghdine, Co. Clare