Sexologists as Collectors of Archaeological Erotica in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Jen Grove presented on “Sexologists as Collectors of Archaeological Erotica in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century” at the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Conference, Barcelona, in September 2018.


Some scholarly attention has recently been given to the way in the classical past informed new sexological concepts in the West in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. For instance, the publication of Sexual Inversion (1896/1897) by Havelock Ellis and Classical scholar John Addington Symonds, which drew on ancient Greek practices in order to defend contemporary male same-sex desire. But as well as historical texts, many sexual scientists were interested in material and visual culture from the past. It is well known that Sigmund Freud made use of his substantial collection of Egyptian and other ancient artefacts in his psychoanalytical theory and practice. But other founders of modern sexual science, such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey, were also avid collectors of archaeological artefacts, especially with sexual and phallic themes.

This paper will consider what role collections of physical evidence of past sexual practices, desires and customs played in the study of sex and the sexological method of comparing past and present cultures. How did displays of archaeological artefacts at sexological clinics, laboratories and other spaces of sexual science relate to sexology’s varied aims to research, educate, campaign and treat? I will consider how the pursuit of archaeological and historical collecting sat alongside the scientist’s work of gathering statistical and other types of data and by what mechanisms they sought to maintain scientific authority in the face of acquisitions of being collectors of “pornography” or “obscenity”. To what extent were diverse visual and material representations of sex from the past rationalised within the project of writing the “science” of sexuality?