An Altered Past: Modified Dice Tells Tales of Medieval Gambling in Norway
Is it true cheaters never prosper? Archaeologists believe that a 600-year-old wooden dice found in Norway was used in Medieval gambling. It was apparently a prized possession of a shifty player, who may have had to toss his “lucky charm” as people caught on to his unfair advantage in their game.
The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) reports the dice had the unusual feature of two fours and two fives, but no one or two. The wooden artifact was not only crooked, but also slanted. It measures 2.1 cm (0.83 inches) high and wide in the top, but 2.2 cm (0.87 inches) in the bottom. The piece weighed a somewhat heavy 16.7 grams.
The dice was probably used by a cheater in Medieval gambling. ( Angela Weigand, UIB )
Archaeologist Ingrid Rekkavik writes that gambling was rather widespread in Bergen in the Medieval period. The problem was severe enough that the practice was eventually banned by the authorities. Rekkavik explains that there was even a city law in 1276 which allowed the King’s Ombudsmen to seize any money from the betting table and fine the gamblers about 107 grams of silver for breaking the law.
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The kings throw dice. "Olav the Sacred Saga" by Snorri Sturlason, King Saga, Kristiania 1899. ( Nasjonalmuseet)
The location where the dice was found was filled with inns and pubs in the Middle Ages, so project manager Per Christian Underhaug is not surprised that it could have been used in gambling. It was unearthed by a wooden street which dates back to the 1400s.
How did the altered dice end up in the street? Underhaug says it is equally likely to have been intentionally discarded as lost.
Rekkavik has created a couple of possible scenarios for how the dice made its way to the street. She suggests the person trying to cheat at the game was either suspected or caught in the act. One of his fuming opponents may have thrown the dice into the street or the cheater could have dropped the wooden piece when he noted people looking at him suspiciously.
The excavation. The dice was found during an excavation inside this concrete frame in Øvre Korskirkeallmenning in Bergen. ( NIKU)
Live Science reports archaeologists are uncertain how the dice could have worked in betting, but it seems probable that the game saw the roll of a one or two as unlucky and four or five as good.
Although most signs suggest the Medieval dice was a gambler’s tool, there is also the possibility that the artifact was used in some unknown game which didn’t include the numbers one or two.
NIKU writes the object is rare because of its alterations, but it isn’t the only time Medieval dice have been found in Bergen – more than 30 have been recovered so far.
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A February 2018 study shows that there are several instances of people attempting to cheat at dice in the ancient past. It says,
“In Roman times, many dice were visibly lopsided, unlike today's perfect cubes. And in early medieval times, dice were often “unbalanced” in the arrangement of numbers, where 1 appears opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6 […] Gamblers may have seen dice throws as no longer determined by fate, but instead as randomizing objects governed by chance.”
Selection of Roman era dice and jetons (tokens). ( CC0)
Top Image: This Medieval dice has two 4's and two 5's but no 1 or 2. Archaeologists believe that it was likely used to cheat while gambling. This photo shows the two 5's. Source: Angela Weigand/UiB