Monday, December 13, 2004


Anthropologists admire ritual above all else. They see it everywhere, in objects and social patterns to which they desperately desire to assign ritual characteristics, often in aspects and materials of culture for which an identification is not otherwise clear - hence the old archaeologists' axiom, "if you don't know what an artifact is, it's probably ritual." Leslie G. Freeman, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Chicago, champion of the caves of Altamira and the Romanesque churches of Cantabria, taught us otherwise - "if you don't know what an artifact is, look first to a ludic explanation." Ludic, from Latin ludis, or gaming, describes all sorts of objects used for domestic entertainment.

Think about your space right now, and about how many things around you would defy easy identification a generation ago, or a generation from now. Chances are, you're using these objects for amuseument, for pastimes, for comfort. As you can see, there is probably a finer line than we'd like to admit between ritual and entertainment, and certainly their roles overlap in modern life to varying extents. Ludic objects form a major class of the vestiges of our material culture. Most object types are not passed on from one era to the next; however, the most universal, engaging, and easy to make and use, do. Take my favorites, dice, as an example.

We are told that ludic objects are often "plays in form" on, or abstractions of, other more immediately practical objects - musical intruments off of tools (many early and folk instruments are hybrid with other purposes, in fact), model toys of all kinds being reductions of practical vehicles, buildings, and weapons. Gaming pieces mimic soldiers, Platonic solids used in construction, or human anatomy. It is my goal to stress that this relationship informs in both directions - often, there is a reciprocal modeling of practical objects on comforting ludic shapes. In some cases, it is hard to see which way the influence runs strongest.

This brings me to exagia (same root as 'exact[ing]'), objects historically used for measuring and weighing, from ancient China to Rome and through to modernity. I will some day illustrate this in as many examples and images as possible, but for now, I'm eager to share this:

This is a weight - six Roman unciae - in my collection. It has fourteen sides (a cube-octahedron, or cuboctahderon), an irregular Platonic solid common in physical-philosophical treatises, and in ludic object production, since the early Classical Greeks. Depending on your belief as to the origin of the Etruscans, it may even have been identified earlier. There is no easily remarkable pragmatic reason for making a weight in this form; it is just an appealing shape, and one that may have brought connotations with gaming (many early dice were in similar polyhedral form) and philosophy. It is cast in bronze and lead, and carved into one face is a pre-Roman sign for abundance - a sheaf of wheat, a symbol for the tree of life - found throughout Celtic Europe on coins and other objects. It comes from a 1st century encampment on the Danube, an area of protracted contact between the Roman legion outpost and the local tribes, intermixed Dacians and Celts. Pragmatically, it may have been used to measure grain in a marketplace, or perhaps in the production of coins. Aesthetically, it is appealingly rustic in construction, worn from use, and patinated with age. It has a pleasant heft in the hand. When I can, I'll add some images from later cultures to show how this form persisted. If you run across any others while out in the world, let me know!


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