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The Mystery of Ancient Roman Dodecahedra

Updated on November 16, 2015
Roman dodecahedron
Roman dodecahedron | Source
Roman dodecahedron
Roman dodecahedron | Source

There are many artifacts and findings that puzzle archeologists, but some of them not only look unusual or fascinating, but actually become a mystery. Sometimes no matter how hard scientists try to find out their origin and purpose, they never get close to it.

Roman dodecahedra were first discovered about 200 years ago, in 18th century England, and since then archeologists have kept finding more and more of them. About a hundred have been found so far, while archeologists have excavated the Roman settlements in different parts of Europe. The most of these marvelous things were found in France and Germany, though there were also some discovered in Hungary, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, and even in Italy itself. Many of these territories used to be the Roman province of Gaul in the ancient times, which makes some suggest that these strange artifacts could have something to do with the Gauls themselves. There are some theories—with no evidence to prove them, however—saying that they could be used for certain traditional religious rituals in those lands.

The most of the dodecahedra artifacts were made in the 2nd-3rd century AD, and historians are sure that during the times of their use they were considered very valuable items, for the most of them were found amount other precious objects like coins and jewelries, some were placed in treasure hoards which definitely makes them something the Ancient Romans valued. The most of them are made of bronze, some others from stone, and what is the most interesting is definitely their shape. The Roman dodecahedron, as comes from its name, has a shape of a dodecahedron geometrical figure. It has twelve flat pentagon-shaped facets, a round hole of a different diameter in each, and a spherical knob on every corner of each pentagon. The artifacts’ size varies from 4 to 11 centimeters and there are no any known mentions or depictions of them in any historical sources, which makes their origin an absolute mystery.

Roman dodecahedron
Roman dodecahedron | Source

An even more mysterious and interesting fact about these things is that there is a very similar object, though of a little bit different geometrical form: a Roman icosahedron. This artifact, single and unique in its shape, looks almost like a typical Roman dodecahedron, but there is only one hole in it and its actual geometrical shape is different. The object looks so similar to a Roman dodecahedron that it spent several years in museum storage basement before someone finally noticed that it actually has a different form.

As for the theories about what these interesting artifacts could be used for by the Romans, there are many of them, each good in their own way and can be true, and each completely lacks any evidence due to the dodecahedra never being mentioned in any historical sources. Not a long time ago a man from Britain found a dodecahedron in his garden, and, looking at it attentively, he came to the conclusion that it was probably used by the plumbers of Ancient Rome to measure the diameter of pipes. Another theory states that the dodecahedra could be used for finding out the best time for planting seeds using the astronomical knowledge that the Romans had and, therefore, was a very important object for agriculture. Although this theory has its weak spot, for all the dodecahedra are different in diameter which makes them improper for counting, math, and astronomy, for the result would always be different.

Roman dodecahedron
Roman dodecahedron | Source

Another explanation is that they were used for something like dice-games by the Roman soldiers who had to settle or spend a lot of time in military campaigns. One more version is that they were used as some kind of candleholders, for there was wax found in one of them. There are theories suggesting that these geometrical objects were nothing more than a toy for children, or a decoration, like a little work of art, and was appreciated by Romans for its unique shape and design. But whatever they truly were, the truth about it remains unknown for archeologists, historians, and respectable scientists, puzzling them and anyone else who looks at these things in an attempt to understand their purpose. In 2014 one person suggested they were used for knitting, and they even made something like a glove to prove it, using a copy of a Roman dodecahedron, though this theory has a lot of weak sides as well, and to many people and historians it looks very far-fetched.

The last Roman dodecahedron was found in France in 2011 and more will probably be found later, maybe even the explanation for their use will be found. Though for now everything we can do is to speculate about what they are and how would we use them if we would be Ancient Romans. If you are curious you can find them in a museum and take a look at them to make your own theory.


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    • Linnea Lewis profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from USA

      VirginiaLynne, that's very interesting! I bet they look beautiful, although I have to ask: does anyone know what purpose they served? Maybe they would help answer the questions about the Rome ones.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      4 years ago from United States

      These look a lot like some objects we've seen in China except that those ones are made of wood or stone and have many dodecahedrons inside the outer one--they are generally created from one piece of wood or stone and the ones in the center spin. They are often made of jade.


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