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For hundreds of years carvings of naked women have sat provocatively on churches across Britain. But who created them - and why? Look at these, my child-bearing hips.

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Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips Sheela-na-gig, Sheela-na-gig. You exhibitionist. The year is and the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey is performing Sheela-Na-Gig, the most successful single from her critically acclaimed album Dry. But unless you're a fan of late 20th Century indie music, or an expert in Norman church architecture, there's every chance you've not been exposed to the sheela-na-gig - or have walked past one without even realising it.

Hidden in plain sight, these sculptures of squatting women pulling back their labia have for nearly a millennium sparked intrigue, shame and even anger. Often overlooked, or perhaps ignored, by vicars and congregations, the figures can be seen in dozens of British churches. For the past 20 years John Harding, from the Sheela Na Gig Project, has covered thousands of miles tracking down sightings of them across the country.

His obsession began following a visit to a church in Shropshire in After finding very little information online, he decided to post something himself and was inundated with possible sightings. In Shropshire they are all within about 10 miles of each other and they're all different - but they're all naked women, basically.

Ireland has the largest concentration of sheela-na-gigs, while in the UK there are about 60 known figures with "more popping up all the time", according to Mr Harding. But why these stone carvings were displayed in Norman churches across Britain, Ireland, France and Spain has divided opinion. Some suggest the figures depict a pre-Christian deity, others that they are a fertility symbol or a protection against evil. Dr Barbara Freitag, author of Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, believes they were made by local carvers for country churches to promote a successful birth.

Mr Harding, however, thinks the explicit church sculptures were meant to warn people against the sin of lust. He adds: "There's one in Haverfordwest [in Pembrokeshire] in the cloisters, holding its dress up. However, it is the sheela at the parish church in the Wiltshire village of Oaksey, with her "pendulous breasts" and "hugely exaggerated vulva", which is his favourite.

Positioned next to the main door of the church, a small lead roof has been installed above the carving to protect it. But not all congregations have been keen to embrace these X-rated sculptures.

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In the Essex village of Easthorpe, a sheela was deemed too obscene to keep and so was given to a museum after serving time in the vicarage garden rockery. Some have been found in rivers with "marks of burning on them", Mr Harding says, while others were removed, hidden or destroyed by red-faced clergyman and shocked churchgoers. Ina topless figure which had been in a chapel in Buncton in West Sussex since the early s was attacked, despite having "no obvious genitals on display". And it's not just the full-frontal brashness of the sheela that has outraged sensibilities. Phallic figures found on the corbels [wall brackets] in churches are thought to have come under attack by the Victorians.

A male in a "state of arousal" can even be found alongside a female figure at one Wiltshire church, as Mr Harding explains. At the church of St Mary and St Andrew in Cambridgeshire, a sheela can be seen next to a naked male figure. In Bristol, graphic artwork can be spotted in the 1, roof bosses [carved decorations] at St Mary Redcliffe.

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Among a of exhibitionist figures there is a contortionist "showing their bottom with all their other bits", a naked couple, and a man with "his trousers down - having a poo". And if that wasn't enough to make a choirmaster blush, high in the roof beams of Avening Church in Gloucestershire an "acrobatic type" can be seen jutting out from the wall with his head between his legs and a penis in his mouth.

So it's fairly self-supporting, shall we say. For the Church of England, the presence of stone genitalia in places of worship is all part of the "rich tradition of church decoration" over the centuries.

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And even though the experts might not think alike as to what purpose sheela-na-gigs served, many do agree on one thing. Ms Rhoades agrees that many sheelas "are clearly enjoying themselves". Sheela-na-Gigs mapped.

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Sheela Na Gig Project. Church of England. Image source, Sheela Na Gig project. Image source, John Harding. Image source, Brian Robert Marshall. You might also like:. Princess Alice disaster: The Thames' forgotten dead 'Why I chose to have my leg amputated' The warrior queen who 'achieved the incredible'. Related Topics.

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Sheela-na-gigs: The naked women adorning Britain's churches