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

At a glance, to me the most logical idea is that these acted as corner weights to fishing nets, as you can see how a cord would pass through the holes and that the shape is an ideal one to prevent grip at the bottom - the small rounded feet could catch on river stones, but easily be dislodged with a tug. The material used (stone or bronze) are sufficiently heavy to drag the net down, but light enough to pull back easily.

Tsurugi's picture

I wonder if the holes would whistle if it was spun like a top...?

Actually dragging string/yarn/thread through beeswax is a way that is used to strengthen and water proof it. People today don't sew as much as they used to so the insight night be lost. Also, poking needles into beeswax is a way go keep them collected together.

possible yes, i can see how the yarn or thread would wrap around the rounded points :)
very good ! Be cool to find one with the thread still around it, even shreds of it would give that sewing reason, clout ! But then why fill center with wax ? how would wax benefit thread, string or linen ?
May help linen age, not dry out, from getting fragile ?

I thought it looked like something used to spin yarn or wash and stretch wool. Interesting that you said knitting.

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