There are lots of wonderfully lurid stories about erotic artifacts, but the evidence behind them, or the lack thereof, is frequently disappointing. Yes, it would be pretty great if Cleopatra really had constructed a pleasure device out of bees, but there simply aren't any good sources to back up such claims. Sometimes, though, it works the other way around - we unearth something or rediscover something that makes our collective monocles fly off. Were the ancients really so suggestive? According to archaeologists and historians, yes.
Wrestling with this realization was a common enough occurrence that there are entire secret collections, such as the British Museum's Secretum, that exist solely to hide all the overtly sexual archaeological finds so innocent eyes won't see them. While it may be entertaining to picture a Victorian curator sifting through crates of history's many indelicate depictions while striving vigorously not to realize what they were, this list demonstrates that history really has no shortage of prurient artifacts.
Of the various brazenly sexual depictions to be recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the sculpture of the god Pan having relations with a goat may be the most recognizable, in part because of the fine detail and the seemingly genuine affection on Pan's mug. The piece would probably have been humorous to a Roman audience, its sexuality not even all that remarkable because art in ancient Rome was frequently violent, sexual, or sometimes both.
The piece travels now, but for over a hundred years, it was locked in the Gabinetto Segreto, the Secret Museum in Naples where much of Pompeii's erotic art wound up. King Francis I visited the Pompeian exhibit in 1819 and was so scandalized that he ordered everything indecent locked away, where it mostly remained until 2000.
It's wise to be suspicious about any historical myth that concerns a powerful female ruler, and Catherine's rumored controversial passing is just that. The French likely started the rumor about her relations with a horse after she passed. Her furniture, however, is slightly less of a rumor. The alleged collection includes a table supported by four phalluses instead of legs and a chair adorned with detailed depictions of oral and various elaborate nudes.
None of this furniture seems to be extant, but a film by documentarian Peter Woditsch interviews German soldiers about the phallus-adorned stuff that had once been in the salon before everything was spirited away.
The Moche civilization existed along the northern coast of Peru starting around 100 CE and left behind remarkable ceramics, pottery that's already very distinctive even before you get to the skeletons depicting self-servicing. Many of the so-called "Sex Pots" depict intercourse between actual, non-skeleton people, although curiously, the most oft-depicted act is rear entry relations. For whatever reason, vaginal intercourse is rarely represented.
Moche civilization was built around irrigation, and the art it left behind probably reflects this emphasis on fluid as a life force; some of the pots actually have a phallus (or some other orifice) for a pouring spout.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, but they were preserved so well as to give future archaeologists an unparalleled opportunity to look into the past and see it as it really was. Archaeologists of the 18th and 19th centuries may not have been fully prepared for that reality. The Pompeiian graffiti is often obscene, and sometimes utterly banal, for example: "Weep, you girls. My [phallus] has given you up. Now it penetrates man's behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!"; "I screwed the barmaid"; and "On April 19th, I made bread."
Much more shocking than the graffiti was the fresco of Priapus and his massive erect member, which excavators hurriedly re-covered and pretended to forget about.