Roman dodecahedra

The enigma of the Roman dodecahedra

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The Roman dodecahedron is a small, hollow object made of bronze or (more rarely) stone, with a geometrical shape that has twelve flat faces. Each face is a pentagon, a five-sided shape. The Roman dodecahedra are also embellished with a series of knobs on each corner point of the pentagons, and the pentagon faces in most cases contain circular holes in them.  More than 200 years after they were first discovered, researchers are no closer to understanding the origin and function of this mysterious object.

The Roman dodecahedra date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, and typicall range from 4cm to 11cm in size. To date, more than one hundred of these artifacts have been found across Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary.

An incomplete cast copper alloy dodecahedron

An incomplete cast copper alloy dodecahedron (1 – 400 AD), discovered by a metal detectorist in Yorkshire,  England ( Portable Antiquities Scheme / creative commons).

The great mystery is: how do they work and what do they do? Unfortunately, there is no documentation or notes about them from the time of their creation, so the function of these dodecahedra has not been determined. Nevertheless, many theories and speculations have been put forward over the centuries: candlestick holders (wax was found inside one example), dice, survey instruments, devices for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain, gauges to calibrate water pipes or standard army bases, staff or scepter decorations, a toy to throw and catch on a stick, or simply a geometric sculpture. Among these speculations, some deserve attention.

One of the most accepted theories is that the Roman dodecahedron was used as a measuring device, more precisely as a range measuring object on the battlefield. The hypothesis is that the dodecahedron was used for calculating the trajectories of projectiles. This could explain the different sized holes in the pentagrams. A similar theory involves dodecahedra as a surveying and levelling device. However, neither of these theories has been supported by any proof and exactly how the dodecahedron could be used for these purposes has not been fully explained.

One of the more interesting theories is the proposal that dodecahedra were astronomic measuring instruments for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain. According to G.M.C. Wagemans , "the dodecahedron was an astronomic measuring instrument with which the angle of the sunlight can be measured and thereby one specific date in springtime, and one date in the autumn can be determined with accuracy. The dates that can be measured were probably of importance for the agriculture". Nevertheless, opponents of this theory have pointed out that use as a measuring instrument of any kind seems to be prohibited by the fact that the dodacahedra were not standardized and come in many sizes and arrangements.

A Roman dodecahedron found in Bonn, Germany

A Roman dodecahedron found in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Hadley Paul Garland / flickr

Another unproven theory claims that the dodecahedra are religious relics, once used as sacred tools for the druids of Britannia and Caledonia. However, there is no written account or archaeological evidence to support this view. Could it be that this strange item was simply a toy or a recreational game for legionnaires, during the war campaigns? Some sources suggest they were the central objects in a bowl game similar to that of our days, with these artifacts used as markers and the players throwing stones to land them in the holes within the dodecahedra.

Statue 'Dodecaëder' in Tongeren

Statue 'Dodecaëder' in Tongeren, highlighting the mystery of the Roman dodecahedra ( Wikimedia)

Another discovery deepens the mystery about the function of these objects. Some time ago, Benno Artmann discovered a Roman icosahedron (a polyhedron with twenty faces), misclassified as a dodecahedron on just a superficial glance, and put away in a museum's basement storage. The discovery raises the question about whether there are many other geometric artifacts of different types – such as, icosahedra, hexagons, octagons – yet to be found in what was once the great Roman Empire.

The Roman icosahedron found by Benno Artmann

The Roman icosahedron found by Benno Artmann ( georgehart.com)

Despite the many unanswered questions, one thing is certain, the Roman dodecahedra were highly valued by their owners.  This is evidenced by the fact that a number of them were found among treasure hoards, among coins and other valuable items.  We may never know the true purpose of the Roman dodecahedra, but we can only hope that advances in archaeology will unearth more clues that will help solve this ancient enigma.

Featured Image: A Roman dodecahedron. Source: BigStockPhoto

References

Roman dodecahedron – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_dodecahedron

Comments

Is it possible it was a massaging ball? Looks like a great one, the hollow space inside could be use for inserting herbs, oil, wax or something warm, the holes at the sides are made for distributing them to the skin while it rolled.

Though it is most likely just a spooky coincidence, I can't resist but mention how this artifact relates to my actual cosmological research about topology of the Universe... Simplified: if the "shape" of the Universe is such that it is "connected" (ex. imagine universe of computer game aliens on your TV screen such that if they cross bottom edge they re-appear at the top edge or if they cross right edge they re-appear on the left edge; that is "connected" 2Dim universe in the shape of the surface of a 4Dim torus,finite universe which to the game aliens might look like infinite at the first glance)-we may detect and measure it by finding a matching patterns in Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. Patterns of matching circles at opposing ends of our 3Dim world (search for "Circles in the sky" and "topology of the universe" to find more details). Due to the other astrophysical constrains the most likely "shape" of our Universe is indeed a dodecahedron (there is even one published paper which, though with a lot of errors, claims it have found these matching circles for a dodecahedron shaped universe). When/if we find that it indeed is, proof will be in the 5 pairs of matching circles facing each other in the 5 directional axis of a dodecahedron... ie. dodecahedron with circles on each surface,... Spooky coincidence at least for me, involved in this actual research... So, add to your list a "model of the Universe".

Is there any way this could be used as some sort of gauge for some type of rod / pipe? Possibly used by the "plumbers", or builders of the many aqueduct systems from that time

Justbod's picture

What a fascinating and strangely beautiful object, and I love the mystery surrounding them – and the debate that they provoke. Some really interesting comments and ideas above. I always hope with objects such as these that we don’t one day discover that their use was for something mundane. However, as long as we don’t know for sure what they were for, they will also continue to inspire interesting ideas.

Many thanks for the article all the comments :)

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

My first thought was that they could be some kind of pomander.. fill them with scented wax (One was found with a tiny bit of wax inside it) and use them as a way to smell nice.. Romans loved being clean an all that, big on hygene they were. so I've been googling stuff, trying to work out if its a theory that could stick, no-one else mentions it in their theories so i was kinda getting excited. Then as I was googling I hit upon Pythagoras (the confusing maths guy) he used numbers and shapes to represent gods... or used gods to represent numbers (possibly picked up and theorised during his time studying in Egypt).. Plutarch tried to make sense of Pythagoras coded theories and mentioned that the god assigned to the shape of the dodecahedron was Jupiter. Plato also jumps in with his theories of the 5 platonic solids.. geometric shapes that he used to represent the 4 elements,, and the 5th, the dodecahedron which he remarks "The god used for arranging the constellations and the whole heaven".. so at this point the dodecahedron is God.. the universe.. Jupiter. Now all this is taking place round about the same time, and the dodecahedrons that have been found have been dated around about the 2nd or 3rd century AD, which is right around the time that the old gods of Rome (Jupiter being the daddy, the most powerful god in the heavens) were being wiped out by the new religion, Christianity. Maybe, just maybe, the dodecahedrons found (some in with coin hoards, which ment they were valuable) were a sign of worshipping the old gods.. a link to Jupiter, a little bit of the god in your home, your hand, your pocket.. like our modern day cross on a chain, or a crucifix up in your home... also, by the end of the 1st century Rome had trading links with Southeast Asia and dodecahedrons have also been found there. So that's my theory, Pythagoras and Plato use this shape to represent the biggest god in the Roman world.. so the Romans carry a little god with them and they couldnt carry a statue of Jupiter as they would have done before as the old gods had been outlawed pretty much.. all roman emperors had to sign over to christianity.. it was a kind of coded way of saying they believed in the old gods

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