Every Once in a While, We Come Across 1,700-Year-Old Roman Dodecahedra. We Still Don’t Know What They Were Used For

  • Archeologists have found some 130 bronze and gold dodecahedra from the 2nd and 4th centuries since 1739.

  • What they were used for remains a mystery, but experts have several theories and interpretations try to explain it.

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Researchers have uncovered most of Ancient Rome’s secrets, but new discoveries are made that surprise us all every now and then. Such is the case of the ancient concrete used by the Romans thousands of years ago that still endures the test of time. Other examples are the various Roman forts that were recently discovered through Cold War spy satellites, as well as the coins that have provided valuable insights into the Romans’ footsteps around the world.

However, one item remains a mystery—the dodecahedra. Though dozens of them have been found from time to time, their purpose remains unknown.

As good as new. The first of these dodecahedra was discovered in 1739. Since then, around 130 have been found in various parts of Europe, particularly in countries including France, Germany, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. Most of the examples were found in Gallo-Roman locations. One interesting fact is that these objects come in different sizes and are usually dodecahedrons (12-sided figures) with no inscriptions of letters or numbers. In general, they appear to be in excellent condition, with no signs of wear and tear. One icosahedron (20-sided) has also been found in Germany.

Gold dodecahedra. These fascinating objects are primarily composed of copper. An X-ray fluorescence analysis conducted on one of them revealed that it was made of up 75% copper, 18% lead, and 7% tin. They range in size from 1.5 to 4 inches and have similar shapes, with protuberances and holes of different diameters on the faces. However, there doesn’t seem to be a standard measurement or a unique composition.

Additionally, other archeologists have also discovered smaller dodecahedra with the same physical characteristics, except that they’re made of gold. These objects appear to be from the same period and were found along the Maritime Silk Road. This discovery may provide two potential clues: Either the Romans traded with Southeast Asia and brought the more valuable gold objects, or the gold dodecahedra held significant personal value for the Romans.

Norton Disney. The latest discovery has been made in Norton Disney, a town located in the British county of Lincolnshire. This marks the 33rd enigmatic object found in Great Britain, and it’s an interesting one. As explained by the team that discovered it, the object is completely intact and shows no signs of wear and tear.

The dodecahedron weighs around 0.54 pounds and measures 3 inches in width. Experts are currently carrying out an investigation to determine if it holds any properties that could provide insight into its time period. The site where it was found contained ceramic fragments from a wide time frame, from the Iron Age to the Roman period. The excavation team is planning to return to the site this summer.

No historical register. Archeologists have found over 100 dodecahedra, but their use remains a mystery. While they’re in good condition, researchers are confused about some of their characteristics. First, they don’t have a standard size, which seems to rule out that they were used for measurement or military purposes. They also don’t have a standard shape, with different hole sizes on their faces.

Additionally, and more importantly, researchers haven’t found historical records or references to these objects in Roman documents. Although this could suggest that they weren’t highly valued by the Romans, some were found in coin deposits, which seems to contradict this. It’s possible that they were indeed valuable to their owners or they were used with coins, maybe to check their diameter and hence the varying hole sizes in the dodecahedra.

We can only theorize. Due to the lack of documentation and record-keeping, all theories about the use of the dodecahedra are pure speculation. Some theories are simply not plausible, but others may be. For instance, some suggest that the dodecahedra were used in games, but their good condition makes this unlikely. Additionally, since there are no markings on them, the theory that they were used as weapons is improbable.

Another theory suggests that the dodecahedra were used as religious artifacts or for performing rituals. A simpler explanation is that they were part of some sort of test that goldsmiths had to pass to join a guild. Finally, it’s been suggested that they may have been used to measure light or the position of the Sun in order to calculate important dates.

In the end, it’s evident that these objects required a great mastery of metal. However, all the theories surrounding their use can be true or false at the same time. Until we find some records, we can only engage in guessing games about their purpose. What we do know is that they date back to the 2nd to 4th centuries. But since we haven’t found a user’s guide in 1,700 years to tell us what they are, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever find what they were really used for.

Image | Kleon3

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