Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Roman Dodecahedron

An article in Fox News recently asked for reader opinions on the purpose of an unusual artifact that is found in widely dispersed areas and has apparently stumped scholars for centuries.  Here's my guess as to its purpose:




This is a game piece similar to rolling dice.  A round ball, slightly smaller than the largest hole in the dodecahedron, is dropped through the largest hole into the center of the ball.  The dodecahedron is then rolled, like a die, and comes to rest on one of its twelve sides - held slightly above the playing surface by its projectile points.  If the ball drops out of the hole that comes to rest on the bottom, the player gets a point.  There can be more than one hole large enough to pass the ball.  The more large holes the dodecahedron has, the easier it is to score.   For example three large holes offer more chances to score a point than one large hole (3:12 vs. 1:12).  Therefore, the dodecahedron can be manufactured in different degrees of difficulty that changes the chance of success from easy to hard.   One can imagine playing to a total of ten, twenty or more points depending on the number of players and the amount of time at hand.  This game is highly portable, culturally anonymous, educationally unbiased and can be played by people who cannot even speak each others' language.  The winning prize is limited only by one's imagination.

8 comments:

An Sal said...

I like the theory. It offers a reason for the knobs on the vertices that are a common feature from what I've seen.

I should point out that I've never seen or handled such an object, so this a a fun interlude in online sleuthing.

A couple of challenges.

If gaming were the purpose we could expect to see wear on the knobs. Is there any?

Have we ever found the ball that forms the other part of the game? I'd expect the "game" to come as a set and can't see why the ball wouldn't also be cast of bronze.

Finally is there anywhere online a discussion is taking place?

Thanks

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Good questions An Sal. I haven't studied these objects, merely took a guess based on intuition. Hopefully, somebody with the resources and time will follow up. I read in the initial article that some have called it a "bell". Perhaps some have been found with a bronze ball still inside??? I have to wonder if rolling a dodecahedron with a bronze ball inside would make a distinctive bell-like sound?

chappy said...

This seems too easy. It's a missile hurled via sling. Used both in war and in accuracy contests with possible distance contests as well. The shape and holes would give it interesting flight charastics as well as possible greater distance capability. The knobs on the metal ones are for punching holes in skull bones for greater disabling affect. Romans didn't usually bury their enemy dead and also didn't leave many enemy behind to bury their own dead either accounting for little to no forensic evidence to human remains. As a contest item, it is a standardized projectile for hitting wooden objects maybe a little like arrows used as darts in old Brittish times.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting thought chappy. However there are very few of these found. If they were a weapon there would be thousands more like them. In the uk up until 2011 there were only 10 known specimens. In the spring of 2011 I found the 11th at a site in bedfordshire. This also brings the total in the world to 100most of which were found in or around Germany. I like Waynes sugestion of a game and remember the ball could have been made of wood and so would have rotted away.

tadchem said...

It looks to me like an early implementation of a cow bell / horse bell. The clapper would have hung on a leather thong and the whole would have been mounted on a leather or cloth strap that would have let the bell hang from the animal's neck.
Switzerland has a tradition of ornate cow bells that may go back at least that far.

Amelia Carolina Sparavigna said...

I have discussed a possible use of a Roman Dodecahedron, a bronze artifact of gallo-roman origin, for measuring distance. A dodecahedron, found at Jublains, the ancient Nouiodunum, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, is used to create a model. Looking through the model, it is possible to test it for measurements of distance based on similar triangles. See my paper on arXiv, http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.6497 Therefore the Dodecahedron can be an ancient rangefinder. On arXiv http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.2078

Johnny said...

I venture to guess it may have been swung from a club. Easy to tie a chain to if it breaks, clearly much lighter for faster swinging and less fatigue. Long spikes get stuck in human bodies. Extra work and time to remove. These seem to be enough to damage but will not snag so continual hits can be achieved quickly.
These are my thoughts, and I am by no means an expert. I am anticipating when we figure out the answer!

Johnny said...

I venture to guess it may have been swung from a club. Easy to tie a chain to if it breaks, clearly much lighter for faster swinging and less fatigue. Long spikes get stuck in human bodies. Extra work and time to remove. These seem to be enough to damage but will not snag so continual hits can be achieved quickly.
These are my thoughts, and I am by no means an expert. I am anticipating when we figure out the answer!