Ancient, mysterious 12-sided object still baffles archeologists

With a hollow center, 12 sides, and no known uses, Roman dodecahedrons remain one of the great enigmas in archeology. They don’t appear to be used for grooming or personal pleasure  and only 33 of these objects have been uncovered in Great Britain’s Roman ruins. A recent discovery in eastern England is now making a splash in the Roman dodecahedron stud world. The Norton Disney Dodecahedron is of the largest and newest Gallo Roman Dodecahedrons ever found and is currently on display at the National Civil War Centre, Newark Museum in Newark, England. It will also be featured in an exhibit beginning on Saturday May 4 at the Lincoln Museum in Lincoln, England. 

The strange object was discovered by a group of amateur archeologists in June 2023 in the village of Norton Disney in the Midlands of eastern England. The mysterious object was sitting among the ruins of a Roman pit and was likely placed there about 1,700 years ago. It was found “in situ,” or deliberately placed among 4th Century CE Roman pottery in some sort of hole or quarry. More archeological excavation is needed to clarify exactly what this pit was used for. 

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The cast bronze object is hollow at its middle and is about the size of a clenched fist. It has 12 flat faces that are shaped like pentagons. Each face has a hole in various sizes and all 20 corners have a knob. At about three inches tall and half a pound, it is one of the largest of these mysterious Roman objects ever discovered. 

According to the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group, it is considered a copper alloy object that is made up of 75 percent copper, seven percent tin, and 18 percent lead. It is also the only example of one of these objects found in England’s Midlands and is an example of very fine craftsmanship.

Lorena Hitchens, an archaeologist specializing in Roman dodecahedrons, told The Washington Post, that “it’s a really good dodecahedron,” after examining the object. Preliminary dating estimates believe that it was crafted sometime between 43 and 410 CE, during the later Roman period. 

Even with such a solid find, historians and archeologists are still not sure exactly what these unique objects were used for.

“The imagination races when thinking about what the Romans may have used it for. Magic, rituals or religion–we perhaps may never know,” Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group  secretary Richard Parker told the BBC.

Known Roman literature does not have any descriptions or drawings of dodecahedra. The objects were not of a standard size, so the Norton Disney group does not believe they were used to take measurements. They also do not have signs of wear and tear the way blades do, so they were not tools.

“A huge amount of time, energy and skill was taken to create our dodecahedron, so it was not used for mundane purposes, especially when alternative materials are available that would achieve the same purpose,” the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group wrote in a statement. 

[Related: The Roman Britons cared a lot about hair removal, and it shows in artifacts.]

There are 130 known examples of these objects that have been uncovered from the rest of the vast Roman world. Most have been found in north and western Roman provinces near the Alps of modern day France and Germany. There are 33 known examples of Roman dodecahedrons that have been excavated in Britain. This particular example was found near the where a statue of a mounted horseman deity was found in 1989

“Roman society was full of superstition, something experienced on a daily basis,” wrote Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group. “A potential link with local religious practice is our current working theory. More investigation is required though.”

The group will return to the trench the dodecahedron was found in sometime this year to resume excavations.

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