Sunday, 1 August 2021

Millstone phallus comes to Godmanchester Museum


Godmanchester Millstone with Phallus held by Curator Kate Hadley
Godmanchester Millstone with Phallus held by Curator Kate Hadley (courtesy of Godmanchester Museum)

I left the preparations for the reinstated annual Hall End BBQ for a quick dash up the A14 for a very important date. Godmanchester Museum was celebrating its re-opening with a major event, the display of the new exhibit, part of a Roman millstone emblazoned with a phallus (Saturday 31st July 2021). This is a very rare item indeed - only four are known of amongst the tens of thousands of Roman millstone fragments found to date in Britain. 

My small involvement with this stone began with a phone call taken by my wife Jane, from the Godmanchester Museum's curator Kate Hadley, who wanted the stone photographed. 

"Kate called, saying that she was holding a p....s you might be interested in!" was the message.  How could I resist! Kate and I spent an afternoon in June trying to get the best lighting and positioning of the stone to reveal its true magnificence.

By the time I arrived, a crowd had already gathered for the Godmanchester Museum opening and  David Stokes, Chairman of the museum, began the proceedings at 2:30 pm.

David Stokes, Chairman of the Godmanchester Museum, opening proceedings
David Stokes, Chairman of the Godmanchester Museum, opening proceedings

Interested crowd at the opening of the Godmanchester Museum
Interested crowd at the opening of the Godmanchester Museum

He was followed by Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, who had generously brought along their rare example of another Roman millstone fragment with a phallus, from the Norris collection, (partner to another fragment held at the Norris showing engraved curves).

Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, and their phallus millstone
Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, and their phallus millstone

Godmanchester Mayor Councillor Clifford Thomas and Philip Saunders, Chairman of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society
Godmanchester Mayor Councillor Clifford Thomas and Philip Saunders, Chairman of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society

The Godmanchester millstone fragment had been found in a posthole at Offord Hill house, during the excavations prior to the new A14 build. Archaeologist Ruth Shaffrey, realised its significance when when was conducting a routine catalogueing of the finds. She had been researching Roman millstones and was a specialist in ancient worked stone. It was thanks to Quentin Carrol, Historic Environment Assistant Director and Archaeologist, Cambridgeshire County Council, that the remarkable millstone was made available to its nearest hometown museum.

Ruth Shaffrey, Archaeological Worked Stone Specialist, with the Godmanchester millstone phallus (courtesy of Godmanchester Museum)

It was great to hear from Ruth about the origins and possible significance of the millstone. This is what I recall from her talk.

During Roman times, millstones were made using stone excavated from the Millstone grit from the Peak District/Yorkshire. The Godmanchester and Norris millstones were of a medium size and probably animal driven, whilst larger ones could be water powered.

In a typical Roman bakery, the counter would be in the central part of the room, the millstone at one end of the room and the ovens at the other. Customers would therefore have quite likely seen the magnificent carved stones displayed in action. 

The millstone had obviously broken at some time and was later used as a quernstone for hand grinding of grain in its own right.  It was also used as a sharpening tool for blades. It finally ended up in a filled-in post hole, where it was finally discovered in the A14 dig.

Millstones with carvings upon them are rare and would most likely have been commissioned by a wealthy baker or merchant. Whilst the use of a phallus might seem unusual to the modern eye, it was a familiar emblem in Roman times and used both in domestic and other settings, including as jewellery and even being worn by children ( It is thought that it was a lucky symbol as well as the usual possible links to fertility that we would associate it with.

Much like anvils, millstones were themselves seen as important objects, imbued with symbolism, as they were closely linked to grain, harvests and the production of food. To have an object like a millstone, that is already highly symbolic, and then to have it engraved with another important symbol was therefore unusual, hence their rarity.

Ruth also revealed that our region was regarded as one of the granaries of Britain and that more millstones and fragments had been discovered here than in the rest of the UK.

After a walk around the exhibition afterwards and purchase of one of the magnificent postcards of the millstone, I left Ruth to enjoy her specially made Roman vegetarian meal. It had been prepared by local Godmanchester Roman cookery expert, Sosia Juncina. It was back to Milton for our own annual BBQ and street party!

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Lewis Woolnough - a life under the microscope (Obituary)

Memories by Chris Thomas. 06 May 2021

I always knew it was Lewis, as soon as I heard his “Hello Chris” on the phone. A quiet yet warm voice that shone with light of his positive yet reserved nature.

Of course I had met and occasionally chatted to him at  meetings of the Quekett Microscopical Club, but it was really when he approached me about re-issuing his book ‘Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope’ that I came to know him better.

Lewis was above all an open, positive but self deprecating person. Yet in his quiet way, it soon became apparent that appeared ever so slightly unhappy with the way an old first version of his book had been produced and presented. For those of us who got to know Lewis well, this was so uncharacteristic of his usual unflappable outlook, that the small hints of dissatisfaction spoke volumes about his feelings on the matter. I might therefore have had some initial reservations on embarking on the project of producing the book in a way that he wanted.

Such fears were soon dispelled as I found that here was someone with a deep shared interest in helping and instructing others. What really struck a chord with me was his constructive and cooperative approach to transferring his knowledge to an audience starting out in microscopy. No didactic lecturing, here was a friend who would take you through right from the beginning to proficiency in using the stereomicroscope.

I really enjoyed debating certain points with him, as he or I would try to persuade the other to our viewpoint, each of us microscopy experts in our own right. There was a steely core of certainty about what his objectives were underlying that calm smiling exterior, combined with a flexibility of mind that allowed compromise where it would ultimately benefit the book. We worked well as a team and I looked forward to his company, despite our different personalities. 

We were able to combine his text and quirky black and white illustrations with many colour photos, include colour coded sections for easy reference and even introduce stereoscopic images. The result was the new first edition, published in 2010 by the Quekett Microscopical Club – which was recognised as a useful handbook, not only for novices but also those already familiar with stereomicroscopy. It is now out of print.

Milton Contact Ltd published the second edition of his book with added material in 2018.

The second edition of Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope

Digital printing also allowed smaller print runs, in the hundreds rather than thousands. When a batch was close to running out, we simply ordered another small print run to tide him over. There are several retailers still selling the book, Brunel Microscopes and Northern Bee Books being examples. The Quekett also purchased copies use at special events and for the Arkwright Scholarship course on microscopy that it runs annually. Individuals also ordered copies directly from Lewis, with many copies going abroad.

Such was the feeling of success from the relationship that I was inspired to write and publish ‘Understanding and using the light microscope’ with Lewis’ assistance, input and co-authorship. We had great fun hiring a photographic studio for an afternoon, roping in my student daughter for age and gender balance. We produced nine instructional videos accompanying the book. Lewis was such an excellent teacher that we basically agreed a topic for each video, an outline of the content and then just let the camera roll as all three of us turned these into real life lessons on using the light microscope. We did have to do several takes on certain parts sometimes but it went remarkably smoothly, with great fun had all round. 

Other fond memories I have are of meeting Lewis and Janet in their home, having a lunch or a tea in the kitchen overlooking their large garden. Lewis and I would then ensconce ourselves in the study to pore over microscopes, samples and generally talk of things microscopical. At the end of the day, Lewis would always safely wave me out onto the road from his drive as a large hedge on the right obscured the view and I feared for my safety.

Whilst I could always find my way to Lewis, I invariably had trouble finding the route to the nearby Village Hall in Bradfield St George, where Lewis was involved in the organisation of the annual East of England Microscopy meeting in Autumn. I must have found at least three different routes to get there and exit over the years, seemingly finally coming to the venue almost by chance!

Lewis was also the turn to person when it came to meeting the relatives of other microscopists and helping them find good homes for their microscopes, slides and occasional hazardous stains and solvents!

Lewis was also there with constructive advice and support when I contemplated and finally joined the new Quekett Committee.  

From our occasional conversations this year, I learnt almost as an aside of Lewis’ illness, and hearing of his hospitalisation and passing away, I felt the loss of a decade’s long companion and like minded person in microscopy, as well as the an author.

But Lewis is still there within me, the shared memories, laughter, debates and interests. I’m pleased that I can tread in his footsteps by taking on the first part of the Quekett’s Arkwright Scholarship course, aiming to continue his aim of making microscopy education fun, interesting and interactive.

Monday, 1 March 2021

The searchable Cambridge Open Studios 2019 guide

 A searchable version of the Cambridge Open Studios guide for 2019 is now available to view as an eBook on the internet archive, or to search directly on this page in the window below. (For a full leafable version, click on the link below the book)

Monday, 8 February 2021

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population increase with freedom and level of democracy by February 2021


There appears to be a trend towards a greater number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 population with increasing freedom and level of democracy. The results below were obtained by plotting COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population against four different categories of freedom and democracy for 171 countries, where possible. 

The COVID-19 data used was published by Johns Hopkin University of Medicine at on the 5th February 2021.

Four indices of freedom or democracy for the same countries were obtained from the Wikipedia ‘ List of freedom indices’ available at They covered data gathered from 2018 to 2020 and were:

  1. Freedom in the World
  2. Index of Economic Freedom
  3. Press Freedom Index
  4. Democracy Index


All four indices appeared to show a positive correlation between COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population and increasing freedom or democracy. Some of the differences appear to be significant.

The data is skewed and not normally distributed. Data can also cover quite a range from low to high values of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population for each freedom or democracy category within in each chart


The charts below show both a distribution of each countries value for a given freedom or democracy index as blue dots, and the data described in the form of boxplots.

Figure 1. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified as free, Partly free and Not free.

Figure 2. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified with Economic freedom, categories Free, Mostly free, Moderately free, Moderately unfree and Repressed.

Figure 3. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified with press Freedom categories Good, Satisfactory. Some problems, Difficult and Very serious.

Figure 4. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified withcategories of Democracy: Full deomocracy, Flawed democracy, Hybrid regime and Authoritarian regime.


The data for the box plots is summarised in the charts below. The red boxes in the tables of percentage differences between any two sets of data within an analysis suggest the data is significant.

Table 1. Data used for figure 1 on Freedom in the World

Table 2. Data used for figure 2 on Economic freedmom

Table 3. Data used for figure 3 on Press Freedom

Table 4. Data used for figure 4 on Democracy index

The full spreadsheets with all the raw data and calculation are available from the author on request.


I simply visualise the correlation between increase in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population with increases in freedom and democracy. It requires a more detailed analysis of the way different countries experienced and tackled their epidemics, to identify which factors might be responsible for these trends.

Areas to consider could include:

  • Acceptable balance of increase risk of deaths per 100,000 population against temporary maintenance or loss of freedoms
  • Ability to take action in the face of a growing epidemic.
  • Impact of differing political and economic viewpoints on speed of decision making process.
  • Local factors that impact on public willingness to accept decisions relating to the epidemic.

Chris Thomas, 08 February 2021