The first of these dodecahedrons (pronounced dough-decka-hee-drons), which are objects with 12 flat faces that have the shape of a pentagon, was found almost 300 years ago in 1739, buried in a field in the English countryside along with some ancient coins. According to records of the find at the time, “The 12 faces had an equal number of perforations within them, all of unequal diameters, but opposite to one another … every facing had a knob or little ball fixed to it. Each face has a hole of varying diameter and the objects themselves are hollow.”
The 1739 dodecahedron was just the beginning. More than 100 similar objects have since been found at dozens of sites across northern Europe dating from around the 1st to the 5th centuries AD. They typically range in size from about the size of a golf ball to a bit larger than a baseball.
By the mid-1800s, as more were found, the objects became known to archaeologists as “dodecahedrons,” from the Greek for “12 faces.” They are commonly referred to as “Roman dodecahedrons” as well. They’re on display today in dozens of museums and archaeological collections throughout Europe.
“The obvious craftsmanship that went into them, at a time when metal objects were expensive and difficult to make, has prompted many researchers to argue they were valuable, an idea that’s supported by the fact that several have been found stashed away with Roman-era coins. But that still doesn’t explain why they were made.”
These objects have no paper trail either. “Historians have found no written documentation of the dodecahedrons in any historical sources,” nor has their use been depicted in any drawing or artwork from that time.
As a result, many theories have been suggested over the years: from military banner ornaments to candleholders to a type of weapon, perhaps the head of a mace (a type of club with a heavy head), or a metal bullet for a hand-held sling, to a type of military rangefinder, to some type of decorative piece, to even some sort of toy.
Historian Tibor Grüll of the University of Pécs in Hungary, points out that no two Roman dodecahedrons are the same size, and none have any numerals or letters engraved on them, markings you might expect on a mathematical instrument. “In my opinion, the practical function of this object can be excluded because … none of the items have any inscriptions or signs on [them],” Grüll told Mental Floss.
Additionally, he points to the distribution of the objects as an important clue. They have been found across a northwestern swath of the former Roman Empire from Hungary to northern England, but not in other Roman territories such as Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, or even Rome itself. Could something be “Roman” in nature that hasn’t even been found in Rome, or Italy for that matter? That just doesn’t make sense.
“Perhaps they had a different kind of cultural significance. The 12 sides of the dodecahedrons could suggest a link to the astrological zodiac. Others have suggested a link to Plato, who said that the dodecahedron was the shape “used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.” (It’s not quite clear with historians exactly what Plato was even talking about here as well.)”
“Some researchers have used 3D-printed models of the Roman dodecahedrons for knitting experiments, and suggested that the true purpose of the objects was to create differently sized fingers for Roman woolen gloves.”
Roman dodecahedrons are still being found today and it’s likely more will be found in the future.
What do you think they were used for?
Your guess is as good as anybody else’s at this point.
Let me know what you think!
Thanks to Tom Metcalfe and Mental Floss Studios for contributing to this article.