Monday, December 20, 2004


An interesting Roman six-sided die, deliberately carved from a large animal bone with the marrow channel as a feature. Beautiful concentric circle pips shallowly carved; the corners and faces very worn from use. Very unsual in several aspects - it is also over 2 cm per side; standard modern dice are 1.5 cm, most 1st-4th century Roman dice are around 1 cm per side, regardless of material. Found in what was then Palestine; auction purchase. Sides are standard seven-additive opposites 1-6, 2-5, 3-4; the latter pair remarkable because the pips for four are spread out to accommodate the hole, and there are only two pips for the three side, the marrow hole - more round on this end - standing in for the third mark.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


A first diversion from Roman-era dice and weights; a late medieval lead die from Holland, metal-detected there by my friends at Gaukler Medieval Wares in British Columbia, found in a cache of eight. This is the best example - numbered on each face, opposing sides 1-2, 3-5, 4-6, somewhat unusual. The two is parallel to the edge of the die, and the three is in a triangle instead of a diagonal, both fairly rare features.

It may not look like much, but it a compelling object - very black, and impressively hefty for a 1 cm die. It may have been crushed and shaped from an early musketball, as became common in Europe. Most likely early 15th century from the style and discovery context.

Friday, December 17, 2004


Back to dice for Friday. Some readers will have heard the story of this glass die, which started my part-time work as an antiquities cataloguer. There is even a better story in the works regarding an object I've encountered not unlike the Ptolemaic icosahedron from the auction described below, and I'll be updating about that soon since I may get to take some images and make a sketch or two before the holidays.

The above die is beautifully made with lots of dye included in the fabric of the glass. Common bone dice were made from readily available material and could be drilled or marked quickly for immediate use by anyone. This die, found in Egypt (probably 2nd century in origin), would have been commissioned by someone with a love for both glass and gaming, and with some money to spend on the blue dye to mix in with the silica. After slight drillings for the pips, the holes were filled with a white faience paste, or perhaps mother-of-pearl, now largely decayed into glossy flakes and granules. I haven't figured out how to capture this yet, but like most good Roman glass, the die glows when a bright, pure light source is placed behind it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


Last image for the day, and our first temporary diversion from Platonic-solid ludic objects. What is it? Well, under the medieval Hapsburg dukes, the Vienna mint got very creative and started to put out not just one type of official silver penny (as had been common in other countries), but all sorts of different designs, mostly simple representations of emblematic, even totemic creatures like the local squirrels, ravens, eagles, and dragons (still glimpsed in the forests, occasionally). Amusingly albeit meaningfully, because of the religious precedent of the coin designs and dies with which they were stamped, the animal figures are usually in the center of a cross, which you can just barely see in this example.

This side of the coin is the reverse; the other side has an abstract squarish shape identifying it with the ruler and kingdom. Here and in many other Indo-European coins, it is clearly this reverse that is given special weight by the moneyer, the person who weighed the silver planchet and stamped it; the more concave side of a hammered coin has typically been the most important for identification since Western coinage was invented in Lydia (Turkey) in the 7th century BC. Other silver hammered (stamped) pennies were very popular in Europe at this time, but most were much less abstract. What it says about the assayer of the mint - or Duke Frederick the Handsome (in power 1308-1330) himself - that this critical feature of the coin has been happily taken over by a rodent, I don't know.

Incidentally, 'squirrel' comes to us from Latin 'sciurus.' The Romans must have thought these animals were pretty cute and crafty, because they combined two Greek syllables - skia and oura - to represent them: shadowtail.


A much better macro shot of my Celto-Dacian bronze exagium from the earlier post. In the larger original image, it is possible to see patination crystals and tiny abrasions from the dirt it was buried in for centuries.


Via the macro setting on my new Canon A85 - this is the first digital image I've ever taken, and I'm pleased I could share it with this subject and you.

This is probably my favorite Roman 'legionnaire' six-sided die, which as I mentioned yesterday became ubiquitous for gaming purposes in the late 1st century AD, when they were such the rage that they were depicted (at a considerable cost) in a mosaic in Pompeii. Most European antiquities dealers have a small handful of these, in bone and ivory (this one has been determined to be the latter, more valuable in the ancient world just as now), since they are found in large numbers in encampment, brothel, and bath sites throughout the Roman Empire. They average about $80 for a decent bone example and $120 for a decent ivory cube on the 2004 market in both galleries and online auctions, though die in exceptional condition, or with excavatory provenance (like this one from Oxyrhynchus, a site in northern Egypt, deaccessioned from a museum) can easily fetch double that.

Special reasons I enjoy this die are that it was the first ancient die I ever purchased, it is in a very good state of preservation, and it has rich ivory toning and oxidation. Also, it has two diagnostic features that I hope will help me some day establish a typology for this common item type, something currently lacking. First, the pips for the 'two' side are parallel to the edge of the die, instead of diagonal across it. This is fairly rare, and may suggest it is one of an early class of this type of dice. Second, we can see in the picture that the two, five, and four face the observer, unlike modern dice. In contrast to our familiar six-sided dice, the opposing faces do not add to seven, which also might help to place this object fairly early on in the development of the conventional cubic die.

I have a few other six-sided dice of various materials that have other numbering systems entirely - I hope to work these into future posts and categories.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


The word "hazard" has an interesting origin - it ultimately comes from Arabic 'al-zahr,' or 'the dice.' The story goes that dice were introduced to Arabs in the Holy Land by the Crusaders, who used them to make sadistic wagers that the Moslem inhabitants of Jerusalem couldn't understand or win. Hence, a very negative connotation is said to be associated with this introduction of dice to that culture and their language.

This is an appealing story, but it is simplistic and a bit misleading. As I'm trying to demonstrate in this first set of posts, dice in their current form have been prevalent since the 1st century AD, and Platonic solid ludic objects (a post for tomorrow) since long before. The Umayyads and pre-Umayyad tribes had dice in many of the lands they inhabited, including Egypt. To English, "hazard" arrives via French and Spanish, the first European language it is attested, as azar, in the 10th century or before. It is likely that the Arabic-speaking Moors actually were responsible for the reintroduction of gaming interests to the Iberian peninsula, and not the other way around, and that it was this side of the Mediterranean that gave rise to the hazardous connotation of dice. Arabic philosophers and mathematicians loved their games, and rather than a dire meaning, I rather think that the usage of the object for the concept is an affectionate, and even self-deprecating one.

Above is one of my favorite dice on the globe, a beautiful blue-glass polyhedrum found in northern Egypt in the 1920s (so it is said), dating from the late Ptolemaic or early Roman period, probably early 1st century, before polyhedral dice (thought because of the above object and two others like it in the Louvre to have been primarily used for divination, though that may need a re-evaluation) were eclipsed by ubiquitous legionnaire cubic dice of six sides and conventional pips, used for everyday gambling purposes. [Aside: one likes to imagine the early 1st century centurions rolling modern six-siders for the clothes of Christ, and that was certainly the common portrayal in late medieval art of the West, but they likely threw knucklebones, sticks, or pottery shards].

In any event, this die acquired recent notoriety for being listed in a Christie's auction catalogue - December 11, 2003. It attracted little attention and was estimated because of its prodigious size, color, quality, and inscriptions at between $4000 and $6000. By the end of the auction day, it sold for $17,925. Among the small community of international early dice collectors and scholars, it is thought of as a graal, but also an annoyance, since it drew much general attention to this type of objects and raised even unprovenienced artifact prices considerably.

It is a remarkable object - the twenty sides (this form is called an icosahedron) have twenty signs, thought to be original to the manufacture of the form, which can be identified generally as Greek and Greek-influenced zodiacal symbols. Since the detailed auction photographs are not public domain (and won't likely ever be), and the object itself has disappeared into a private collection (we assume one without a representative blog), it is difficult to put together a full analysis. Knowing that other solids of this rough size, shape, and age were used for weighing and philosophical appreciation, I don't personally put it beyond possibility that this is an exagium recarved with symbols at a later date when divination was more in vogue. Out of an archaeological context, it may be impossible to tell. In the absence of context, though, because of the quality and expensive color of the glass fabric, I will stay in the camp of those who think it is a complete, original object used for divination or recreation after the more structured, historically documented rituals of northern Egypt died out in the late BC.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Here are some polyhedral weights from outside of my collection - they come up for auction at the Malter Galleries in California and Harlan J. Berk here in Chicago from time to time, or are listed in European musem catalogues. The first example, a central (Italic) Roman weight, 2nd century, is in the collection of my French friend Arjan. It is marked with five concentric pips, very similar to those on dice (see very bottom of page for example), also associated on jewelry with the human eye, in its symbolic role as warder and evaluator. The emphasis on this form is really the cube, with only minor truncations, though strictly, these do give it fourteen facets.

Here is a Byzantine weight found in eastern Turkey, stamped with the ounce weight and more circles for decoration, approximately 6th century. The form is ten-sided, if one doesn't count the thick band where the two hemispheres meet (this one is believed to have been cast in two pieces), in which case it is also fourteen-sided.

Next, an Umayyad weight - or Byzantine weight found in Umayyad context - from 8th century Damascus. Centuries after the Roman weight, it is marked with five die-like pips. We can surmise that this form did catch on among the Arabic-writing peoples from the following example.

Finally, a Moorish weight of the 11th century, found in Spain. The pips have clearly acquired a rosette form, and the weight bar abstracted to a pleasant centering motif. This one is a twenty-sided icosahedron, a regular Platonic solid admired by Arabic mathematicians.

I have yet to trace the form past Mozarabic time and locus, unless one counts our favorite role-playing d20, the original source of my collecting obsessions.

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!


Welcome to my thoughts for the day / week / month, friends new and old. As I get started, I will primarily be using this space for sharing images acquired during my travels for MoonRings, Inc. (, where I serve as European Manager. I will also create and maintain a separate page for viewing and / or listening to items in several of my collections. As a test and a greeting to you, I'm pleased to share images of a favorite piece. This is a broken fragment of a Roman gaming die, which to me illustrates the continuity of historic material culture, and the constant human fascination with chance, coincidence, and trying to divine what's in store for each of us. Thank you for visiting and reading; may peace be with you.