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

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.

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

LOUIS MILLETTE's picture

do we have any date when it was made...??

every object the archaeologist see and could not explain the fonction

they are saying astronomical tool could they just say that they do not know...???

so first find when it was made with what material from which mines

i will not be surprise that there is a lot of unknow object in museum that they hide because

they are not able to tell the function of the object

This one probably made in france, during ancient rome, perhaps bc. No one has figured out what they were made for. found all over ancient rome, in tombs, loose among buried rubble. They could have been for just home decor. ? Like some of us may have junk decor laying around our homes also these days.
But more suspected they had a real purpose.

Items such as these, are numerous, many of which are not catloged yet, being so many artifacts, Not nearly enough workers who desire to bother doing the paper work and tagging. So many want to dig, find something, get famous or similar. I wonder why one was found with wax in it, what purpose would wax have inside these ? very valued by many in their treasures, perhaps they had a ongoing game, of vast members who lived far apart, (their found all over) just as we do similar thing with online gaming, playing with others far apart. One needs to be found; still in the box :) so to speak ! No date made, found all over, if dates were known, dates made would vary perhaps over few hundred years. and that would be, and actually is, another clue. they look bronze, copper. Different sized holes are clue also. and all those round balls, feet ? like dice, but more sophistication. But to romans, simple !

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