Understanding the Roman Dodecahedron: Ancient Artefact Mystery

The mysterious Roman dodecahedra have been baffling archaeologists, scientists and historians since the mid-eighteenth century. What are they, who made them, and why? This is the fascinating story of the Gallo-Roman dodecahedron, one of archaeology’s greatest - and most perplexing - enigmas.

8 July 2024

Some as small as a golf ball, others as big as a tennis ball, the Roman dodecahedron is a very strange thing indeed. From Hadrian’s Wall to Hungary, over 130 have been found. Yet while the Romans had a propensity for documenting almost every aspect of their remarkable lives, it seems they forgot – whether by accident or design – about the ancient dodecahedron.

There’s no written or pictorial description of them, there’s no consensus on what they might have been used for, they are devoid of inscriptions or markings, in fact it’s as if they were never intended for entry into the historical record. But yet they were made with remarkable skill by highly talented craftsmen.

Were they so ubiquitous that no-one thought to mention them, or were they so secretive that very few knew of their existence?

Let’s take a trip back to ancient Rome in an attempt to shed light on one of history’s most bizarre mysteries – the Gallo-Roman dodecahedron.

What is the Roman Dodecahedron?

Roman dodecahedra have been found across Roman Britain (Credit: Andy McGarry via Getty Images)

Roman dodecahedra are small, hollow objects crafted during the Ancient Roman era and usually made from copper alloy and bronze. Although each one is slightly different, the surviving examples are characterised by their geometric shape, a twelve-sided polyhedron with each pentagonal face featuring a circular hole of varying diameter. Adding to their curious design, each corner of the dodecahedron artefact is adorned with a small, round protuberance, giving it a distinctive and intricate appearance.

Over 130 have been found so far, including more than 30 in the territory that was known as Roman Britain.

Geographical Significance

Antique map of Ancient Gaul, France (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

When it comes to the archaeological record, does the location of those Roman dodecahedra that have been discovered give any indication about what they may have been used for?

The strange objects – most dating from the second to the fourth century AD – are sometimes referred to as Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons due to the fact that most have been found in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, in modern-day countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria, the vast expanse of northern Europe known in Roman times as Gaul. Interestingly, they’ve mostly been found north of the Alps, often in regions where the Romans interacted with the Celts.

Most of the Roman dodecahedra have been found in Roman military camps, baths, tombs, theatres and temples, and some have been found in coin hoards, possibly suggesting they had some intrinsic value.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their geographical location is that none have been found in the traditional Roman heartlands of Italy, Spain, Africa or around the Mediterranean Basin. This may suggest that they weren’t used as a military object, else it’s likely they would be scattered liberally all over the Empire.

It was reported that the first recorded discovery of a Roman dodecahedron was in the Hertfordshire town of Aston in 1739, yet despite centuries of study, their precise function remains a topic of ongoing debate and speculation. So if they weren’t military by design, what was the purpose or function of the mysterious and ancient dodecahedron?

What Were Roman Dodecahedra Used For?

Ancient Roman astronomical device (Credit: Joesboy via Getty Images)

Despite extensive study, the truth is that the archaeological and scientific communities are still baffled by Roman dodecahedrons, and there’s no definitive agreement on what their purpose may have been. Despite this lack of clarity, there’s plenty of theories.

Candle Holders

One of the simpler theories is that Roman dodecahedrons were used as candle holders. The hollow, symmetrical design with circular holes of varying sizes could allow for the placement of candles, providing a practical yet decorative item for lighting. Some have reportedly been found with a wax residue which adds weight to this theory.

Surveying Instruments

Another prominent theory is that these objects were used as surveying instruments. The Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons’ geometric shape and varying sizes of the holes might have been utilised in some form of ancient measuring or levelling tool, potentially aiding in construction or land measurement. However it’s been suggested that without exact standardisation or markings – each one is slightly different to the next – they wouldn’t be much use as a mathematical or scientific instrument.

Astronomical Devices

Some researchers suggest that ancient dodecahedrons were used as astronomical devices, possibly for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain. The varying hole sizes and angles could have helped observe and measure the position of the sun, similar to a primitive calendar or solar indicator used to calculate the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Military Signalling Devices

Some hypotheses also include the possibility of these objects being used in military signalling or communication. Their complex shape and multiple holes could have been used in conjunction with ropes or cords to create signals over distances.

Religious or Ritual Objects

Given the absence of inscriptions and their often elaborate design, it’s plausible that Roman dodecahedrons had a ceremonial or religious purpose. They might have been used in rituals, possibly related to divination or as symbolic objects in Roman spiritual practices, or those of the Celts.

Other Theories

In the absence of a clear and obvious use, other suggestions also include a knitting tool, where the holes were finger sizes and the protrusions were used to wind yarn, and as part of a game which has been lost to history. Another theory suggests they were a children’s toy, though the craftsmanship and their fragile nature would make that idea unlikely. Were they weights for fishing nets, music instruments, devices for detecting the size of coins, or a way of telling fortunes or horoscopes? Another idea is that the Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons were portfolio pieces for metalworkers to present their skills to potential employers, or even gifts for the dead.

Despite these wide-ranging theories, no single explanation has been universally accepted, and the true purpose of Roman dodecahedrons remains one of the ancient world’s most intriguing mysteries. Each theory highlights the diverse and sophisticated nature of Roman technology and culture, providing multiple avenues for ongoing research and discovery.

The Roman Dodecahedron: An Unsolved Puzzle

Colosseum in Rome (Photo: Sylvain Sonnet via Getty Images)

Roman dodecahedra continue to captivate the imagination. While numerous theories have been proposed regarding their function, ranging from practical tools to ceremonial objects, none have definitively unlocked the secrets of these fascinating artefacts.


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