Two penises engraved on a 2,000 year old stone may shed light on the foundation of the city of Aosta in northern Italy, revealing its deep connection with the Roman emperor Augustus.
Named Augusta Praetoria Salassorum by the Romans -- who captured it from the local Salassi people in 25 B.C. to control strategic mountain passes -- Aosta boasts several monuments dedicated to Augustus.
"But the newly discovered stone tells even more about Aosta’s connection with the Roman emperor. It reveals the city was built under Augustus’ sign during the winter solstice," Giulio Magli, professor of archaeoastronomy at Milan's Polytechnic University, told Discovery News.
Found covered in mud at a depth of 5 feet during excavation work at one of the town’s towers, the elaborately carved stone is still walled up in its original position on the southeast corner of the monument, known as Balivi Tower.
"Originally, the stone stood in plain view. But in the early Middle Ages the tower was probably flooded and its basis covered by alluvial material," Stella Bertarione, the archaeologist who made the discovery, told Discovery News.
Bertarione works at the Superintendency for cultural heritage and activities of the Aosta Valley autonomous region.
Carved on both sides, the block features two very clear figures on one side -- a phallus and, over it, a spade -- and some partly damaged reliefs on the other. There, a phallus is again represented. Over it, a plough and a partly eroded character which appears to be a Capricorn.
The plough and the spade openly hint to the sulcus primigenius, the original trench plowed to mark the perimeter of a new city in the Roman foundation ceremony. Related to the god Priapus, the phallic effigies most likely had an “apotropaic” function, evoking some sort of protection from evil forces.
"The chunk of mud has certainly preserved the stone from damage and censorship," Bertarione said. "In medieval times the evident phallic figures would have been erased since they were regarded as obscene pagan symbols."
Located on the northeast corner of the Roman walls, the Balivi Tower stands in the highest point of the ancient city. Looking at the carved stone, Bertarione noticed a peculiarity.
"The tips of the two phalli point to southeast, where the sun raises in the winter months," she said.
In the analysis that followed, Magli examined the original urban plan taking into account the complex natural horizon of the Alps in which Aosta’s valley is nested.
The results confirmed Aosta’s orientation to the sun rising on the winter solstice.
"We can estimate that the foundation of Aosta began on Dec. 23. On that day, the sun raises right in the direction pointed by the phalli on the stone," Bertarione said.
At those times, the winter solstice was indeed hosted by the sign of Capricorn. Although Augustus' astrological sign was the Libra -- he was born on Sept. 23 -- he chose the Capricorn as his emblem, possibly because it was the sign of his conception.
"Capricorn clearly fitted much better than Libra with the idea of renewal, traditionally associated with the midwinter sun," Magli said. "It was thus chosen to signify the new golden era of peace and prosperity."
"In this view, Aosta would have been built to reflect Augustus' associations with the 'cosmic' signs of renewal: the winter solstice and the Capricorn," he added.