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These knucklebones from the Hellenistic period, from roughly 2,300 years ago, were recently unearthed in central Israel in an area closely connected with the First Temple period. Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

2,300-year-old Knucklebones Used for Divination Found In Israel

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Scientists in Israel have discovered ancient animals' knucklebones used to foretell the future and as a form of spiritual protection in the wild and unpredictable ancient world. They were also the pieces in a game of fate known as “astragalomancy.”

The Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park in central Israel, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Kiryat Gat, encloses Maresha. This was an important town in Judah during the time of the First Temple. Located in the Judean “Shephelah” (southern lowlands) Maresha thrived in Biblical times and all the way through the Hellenistic period.

It was here that archaeologists recently discovered a collection of small animal bones. A Times of Israel report says after studying the artifacts it was determined they represented pieces from an ancient game. And playing this game involved the fates and destinies of participants, or at least they thought so!

Roman astragali or knucklebones replicas, which were used in “divination” games in Rome and elsewhere. (Roland zh / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Roman astragali or knucklebones replicas, which were used in “divination” games in Rome and elsewhere. (Roland zh / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Magical Knucklebones Were Used in Trojan Wars

Today, followers of New Age traditions often say they lead “magical lives,” claiming to manifest occurrences which they “believe” will happen. While practitioners of magic today are in the vast minority, in the prehistoric world everybody lived by the codes of the gods, believing that fate could be altered and that destiny could be affected by magic, like the knucklebones’ divination “game.”

Played in antiquity by both the Greeks and Romans, records dating back to the Trojan War (circa 1194–1184 BC) describe the ancient game of throwing knucklebones known as “astragaloi”. The game “astragalomancy” was a form of divination wherein goat and sheep ankle bones were cast onto a surface and the resulting pattern was interpreted.

The Dynamics of Games of Fate and Destiny

Dr Ian Stern from the University of Haifa recently found the collection of knucklebones in the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park. They all dated back to the Hellenistic period , roughly 2,300 years ago. Dr. Lee Perry-Gal, an Israel Antiquities Authority zooarchaeologist, said the collection of inscribed gaming pieces are “unique in quantity and quality.”

The pieces have inscriptions to Greek gods and goddesses including “Aphrodite, Eros, Hermes, Hera and Nike.” Furthermore, some of the pieces bear words like “robber,” “stop,” and “you are burnt.”

In ancient Greece astragalomancy was played by participants rolling astragaloi or “dice oracles.” According to a report in Heritage Daily to “obtain an oracle, either five astragaloi were rolled at once, or one astragalos (also called astragali) was rolled five consecutive times.”

In conclusion, the scientists said in ancient times distressed people “sought external help in divination and spells and in the world beyond.” Thus, in ancient times bad health, giving birth, coping with the death of a loved one, or defending oneself from the evil eye, all required magical assistance .

Dice and knucklebones (1st-4th centuries AD) on display at the Albacete Museum, Spain. The dice come from Pozo de la Peña (Chinchilla) and Los Villares (Balazote), and the knucklebones from Las Eras (Ontur). (Enrique Iñiguez Rodriguez / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Fate Games Were A Global Phenomena

Divination using bones in a game format was not restricted to the Middle East . Historian Tacitus wrote of divination methods within Germanic tribes including “casting of lots” or the “rolling of dice.” He said the “cleromancy” practiced among some Germanic tribes of the 1st century AD included “the casting of lots which consist in picking up a tree branch and divide it into small pieces, marking them with signs and casting them to determine if the tribes should or should not engage in a conflict or battle.”

Today, one might look at a weather app to track a storm or visit a doctor to deal for health concerns, and we use distance to keep away from those who might harm us. But back in the days before scientific reasoning, casting lots with knucklebones, dice and other divination games were prized tools in the defense against the oft personified forces of bad luck.

Top image: These knucklebones from the Hellenistic period, from roughly 2,300 years ago, were recently unearthed in central Israel in an area closely connected with the First Temple period.  Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

By Ashley Cowie

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