Home Opinion and Features 12-sided Roman relic baffles archaeologists, spawns countless theories

12-sided Roman relic baffles archaeologists, spawns countless theories

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As the group of amateur archaeologists sifted through tiles, animal teeth and pottery fragments buried within an ancient Roman pit in eastern England, one of them encountered something unusual.

The dodecahedron on display at the National Civil War Center in Newark, England. Picture: Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group

By Leo Sands

LONDON – As the group of amateur archaeologists sifted through tiles, animal teeth and pottery fragments buried within an ancient Roman pit in eastern England, one of them encountered something unusual last June.

It was a cast bronze object, hollow in the middle, flat along 12 faces, about the size of a clenched fist. Only one of the diggers – all members of Norton Disney village’s archaeology society – recognised the discovery: It was a Roman dodecahedron, likely to have been placed there 1,700 years earlier.

“You’re looking at a very strange and bizarre object,” Richard Parker, secretary of the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group, said in a telephone interview.

At first glimpse, the dodecahedron looks more like a sci-fi illustration than it does an ancient Roman relic. Each of its pentagon-shaped faces is punctuated by a hole, varying in size, and each of its 20 corners is accented by a semi-spherical knob.

Since 1739, some 130 of these objects have been discovered across Northern and Western Europe. While archaeologists have dated the relics to Roman times, they have been baffled by the objects for centuries, with no consensus ever emerging on what they were for. There is no known written description of them in ancient texts; nor do any pictorial references exist.

“One reason that it is so captivating for the public is that it’s hard to believe that we have anything from the Roman period that we don’t know what it’s for,” Lorena Hitchens, an archaeologist specializing in Roman dodecahedrons, said in a telephone interview. “It’s very tempting to want to solve that mystery.”

“It’s a really good dodecahedron,” added Hitchens, who examined the relic and found it to be remarkably intact. A preliminary inspection dated the find to between AD 43 and 410, the later Roman period.

“It really is one of the oddest and most unusual artefacts that you can get from antiquity,” said Parker, who was brewing tea for his fellow amateur archaeologists when one of the volunteers found the relic. “You look at it and you think: This doesn’t belong. But it actually does. It’s from the Roman period.”

And yet, no one can say how the Romans put it to use. “The function of these enigmatic forms is still unclear and no firm conclusions have been reached,” the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme summarises.

There are, however, clues: The form, condition and locations of the discoveries all offer signposts. They may not solve the mystery, but archaeologists believe that they at least narrow the range of working theories.

For instance, dodecahedrons so far discovered range in length from two to over four inches, suggesting to Hitchens that they are not standard measuring devices. “You need consistency to be able to use anything as a gauge,” she said.

The geographic locations of the discoveries offer another clue: They have been found across the northern and western provinces of the Roman Empire – modern-day Britain, France and Germany. “They’re always north of the Alps,” with none so far discovered around the Mediterranean Basin, Hitchens said. To her, this is a hint that they were not primarily military objects: “If it was purely a Roman military thing, it would have been used all over the empire.”

Internet sleuths have joined the speculation, including on a dedicated Reddit forum, with many gravitating toward an explanation that revolves around their use as tools. In one YouTube video, knit and crochet pattern designer Amy Gaines posits her theory that dodecahedrons may have been used to knit gold chains, constructing a 3D-printed replica to demonstrate her theory. Parker said one member of the public suggested to him this week – perhaps half-jokingly – that they could have been used as a dog treat dispenser. English Heritage lists theories ranging from a tool for finding the best date to sow grain, to functioning as a candleholder, a polygonal die, a range finder, a surveying instrument, or a way of knitting gloves.

But academic archaeologists shy away from the suggestion that they were practical objects used as everyday tools. “I know that because I’ve examined a lot of them, and they don’t have the kind of use wear you’d expect from a tool,” Hitchens said.

“They’re also much more delicate than people realise,” she said. “They would be broken very quickly.”

Nor does Hitchens believe that they could have been used as die – the varying weights of the faces, due to the oddly shaped holes, make them unbalanced, and the protruding knobs impede their ability to roll.

The most popular theory among academic experts, although not yet proved, is that dodecahedrons held religious or ritual meaning, linked in some way to local practices on the Roman Empire’s fringes.

Proponents of this theory – including Parker – also point to the intricacy of the object itself, suggesting it probably had special value. According to Hitchens, the relic was made using a lost-wax bronze-casting process, an extremely technical feat – made even more challenging by the fact that the final product was hollow. “It’s a difficult shape to work with. You have to be really at the top of your game to make one of these,” she said.

Archaeologists believe the Norton Disney relic was intentionally buried at the site where it was found – the same place where a figurine of a godlike figure riding a horse, an object associated with places of worship, was found decades earlier. “We think there is some sort of religious element to the site,” Parker said. “It’s very possible that we may be looking at something that had a ritualistic element.”

“You can’t at this point yet prove that, though,” Hitchens said. “At some point, it will reveal itself to us.”

Perhaps that moment will come this month, when it will go on display at the nearby Lincoln Museum, suggested Gaines, the pattern designer.

“Who knows, somebody may see it and make a connection to its use that may be the best solution,” she suggested in an e-mail. “I wonder in 2,000 years what an archaeologist will think when she discovers some of the tools or the junk we throw away without the instruction manual.”

– THE WASHINGTON POST

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