The Roman Dodecahedra, Mysterious Ancient Artifacts Whose Purpose Remains A Mystery

More than a hundred dodecahedra have been found by archaeologists throughout the territory of the ancient Roman Empire, including countries such as Spain, Italy, France, even in outlying areas such as Germany, Wales, and Hungary.

According to the archaeological records, they date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, but their exact purpose is still a mystery which experts have not been able to solve.

The Roman Dodecahedra are small hollow objects made of bronze or stone in the shape of a Dodecahedra, twelve pentagonal faces, each of which has a circular hole in the center, of different diameters.

The first Roman Dodecahedra was found in 1739, and since then they have continued to appear all over Europe.

Ancient Roman dodecahedron found in Atuatuca Tungrorum (Tongeren). It’s a small hollow object made of bronze or stone with a dodecahedral shape. Its use is still unclear and several proposals have been made including an aid for knitting gloves and a device for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain. Collection of Gallo-Romeins Museum, Tongeren, Belgium. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most of these curious objects were found in France and Germany and range in size between 4 and 11 centimeters in diameter.

However, no mention has been made of these objects in contemporary sources, nor any representation in mosaics, reliefs or other artistic expressions which raises numerous questions.

Their exact purpose has been debated for more than 2 centuries and some archeologists argue that the mystery objects may have used as supports for candles since experts have found wax remains on a few of them.

But the theories also point to other possible utilities, such as for example being a kind of dice for some sort of ancient game.

Some authors have even proposed that these artifacts may have been used as measuring instruments to calculate distances (diopters), and even determine the appropriate date for planting grain in winter, calibrate water pipes or religious objects or artifacts used in different rituals. However, some experts have proposed that these mysterious objects may have had a much simpler purpose and may have been used as a children’s toy.

However, given that fact that most of these objects were found mainly in the peripheral areas of the Roman empire, where the presence of Roman legions constituted the main group of Roman citizens, the Roman dodecahedrons may have been a military artifact.

Its use as measuring devices seems a bit off because the dodecahedrons are not all the same, they have several sizes, and their faces are always different, so they wouldn’t have been very useful if used as measuring devices. (Read this about the theory that they were used as a device for measuring distance.)

A few of the ancient texts available about the mystery artifacts were left by Plutarch, the famous Greek historian, who wrote that these artifacts were representations of the zodiac, where each of the twelve faces corresponded to an animal of the astrological circle. But even this theory has been rejected by scholars since it does not explain the peculiar decoration of the dodecahedra.

It is noteworthy to mention that many of the dodecahedra were found together with other treasures and coins, probably buried by their owners to hide from robbers or looters, which indicates that they were considered as valuable objects.

Smaller dodecahedra with the same features (holes and knobs) and made from gold have been found discovered by experts in South-East Asia.

They have been used for decorative purposes and the earliest items appear to be from the Roman epoch.

Fragments of an ancient Roman dodecahedron found in 2010 at the construction site of the A2 tunnel in Maastricht. Height: 8.1 cm. The 20 corners were decorated with separately attached dots. Photographed at the temporary exhibition Top or Topic in Centre Céramique in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

So what exactly these mysterious artifacts were, remains a mystery.

However, one theory that I find quite appealing was proposed by G.M.C. Wagemans who wrote “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”.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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