Sometimes understanding what an object from antiquity was used for can be perplexing. There have been a lot of theories about this or that and a good example of understanding or not – can be illustrated below.


From Ancient Rome

(according to Wikipedia) The most commonly accepted theory is that the dodecahedron was used as a measuring device. To be more precise, as a range measuring object on the battlefield. The theory suggests that the object was used to calculate the trajectory of projectiles on the battlefield. This is the reason the objects has different sized holes in the pentagrams. Similar theory suggests they were used as a surveying or leveling device. The problem is none of the theories has been supported by proof.

Another interesting theory is that the object was astronomic measuring instrument used for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain. The angle of the sunlight can be measured with the device, and thereby one specific date in springtime, and one date in the autumn can be determined with accuracy. The dates could have been used for specific and important dates in agriculture, for example. The opposite of the theory is that the dodecahedron was different in size and arrangements.

A widely accepted and common theory is that the object was a religious artifact. This is based on the fact that most of the examples were found in Gallo-Roman sites. For example, one such object was found in a woman’s burial ground. There are also theories they were used as candlestick holders, since wax was found in many of the objects.

(Opinion) Or, they were used as guides to knit gloves. (more here) Reverse the video to the beginning.


  1. Or… they were early role-playing gamers. The Caltrop is actually a D4…

    I’ve heard some really big stupid whoppers by overly educated folk, like… oh… say…. People in the 16th and 17th Century could only spin threads about 28″ or so, because that’s what’s found in embroideries or laces.

    Completely ignoring that the fabric under the embroideries or laces are obviously long spun threads. And that most embroiders use an embroidery thread around 28″ long, and the waste threads on most looms are… around 28″ long.

    Ur… Dur…

    Then there’s the whole stupid thing about hygiene in the middle ages. Guess what, people? They bathed and washed their clothes. Bathed a lot, washed clothes not so much except for their underclothes. Usually a lot more in the summer than the winter, which is why when the world got cold in the 1350s, people stopped washing so much because… it was COLD!

    Dur… ur…

    I witnessed one exchange between my Mongol History friend and a ‘noted expert’ in the field who said ‘XYZ wasn’t done for PDQ reasons.’ So Mongol History friend turned to the actual mongol next to him and asked him what the truth was. Which wasn’t what the ‘noted expert’ in all things Mongol said it was.

    As to what the dodecahedron really is? I have no friggin clue. At all. A guide for counting or something would make sense, but again, I have no idea.

    Really want to confound people? Show them something common from the 1860’s that is no longer common. Like wick-trimming scissors. They look like scissors with a little box attached to one blade to… catch the cut wick. But you show modern folk one, even smart people, and most have no friggin clue.

    Maybe the Roman thing is a time traveller trap. Or (whispers conspiratorially) they are designed to destroy the minds of future generations as the FGs speculate what the item is for…

  2. Can’t remember – have we finally figured out how the Romans poured underwater concrete?
    I thought I read about it recently.
    I remember reading about a ceramic pot, with carbon rods inside, that was in a Middle East museum listed as an object of religious/cult use. As I remember it, an engineer from a western country was visiting and thought it looked a lot like a wet cell battery, so he went home and made one himself.
    Poured some electrolyte in it, and it produced electricity.
    I sometimes think ‘religious object’ is archeologist-speak for “we don’t have a clue”.

    • I saw a television show that discussed Roman concrete used in harbors in Alexandria, Rhodes and elsewhere, still strong, still in use. I don’t recall the specifics, but after all this time, they figured it out.

      Water clocks were also widely used in the ancient world to tell time of day and the time of the year. They didn’t gravitate down to individual wrists, naturally, but impressive tech for X years BC.

    • I sometimes think ‘religious object’ is archeologist-speak for “we don’t have a clue”.

      We’ve been saying the same thing ’round these parts. This used to make for a lot of smart-mouthed remarks when we visited museums and saw all the little cards reading “ritual object”. But it’s not fun anymore after so much repetition. These days I’m prone to classify objects of unclear utility (OOUU, pronounced “ooh, ew”) as “must have been a sex toy”. An obviously stupid and offensive guess, but no less useful than “ritual object”.

  3. A while back, I walked into our so-called engineering department with an old print and asked if anybody had an architect’s scale.

    Not one of them would admit to it. The young ones had never heard of them. It’s all compooters now, has been for several decades actually, and if it ain’t on the little screen, it flat-out doesn’t exist. Old and in the way, that’s me.

    • It’s like writing in cursive. It’s not taught anymore. The rising generation can’t read it. Nor, apparently can they speak pig-Latin.

      I recall an incident a few years ago. MRSLL was looking through one of my old high school yearbooks and came across a photo of me in Chemistry class. She mocked the photo saying that I wore a pocket protector. I corrected her and said, “I have a circular slide rule in my pocket.” She didn’t know what a slide rule was nor what a circular slide rule was. I patiently explained that it was a computer that we used before electronic computing reached the hand-unit level. “Man went to the Moon on slide rules.”

      She really wasn’t buying it. A couple weeks later, we were having dinner with friends. He had designed the Lunar Excursion Module’s ascent engine when he worked at Rocketdyne. At the time of the dinner he was working at Rand. I guided the discussion toward slide rule computing and finally MRSLL realized that I hadn’t been pulling her leg.

      Will my grandchildren ever use slide rules? Only if the power goes out.

  4. As a DM of RPG’s, I’m proud to see some gaming geeks on this site. DM=Dungeon Master or game referee. The brass object does resemble a twelve sided die used in some Role Playing Games(RPG’s for you non-geeks). It could have been some some obscure object used by a tiny segment of society, like a slide rule. Alternatively, it could be some once common object like wick trimming scissors. It’s fun to theorize/ take a wild guess, but we may never know.

  5. Few ideas:

    – Looks similar to that 70’s crochet yarn loom…for making Roman skullcaps under headgear. Why else would they be different sizes and found in battle areas? It was a specialized craft (hehe).

    – An ancient reiki tool for after-battle massages.

    – Or tough-man contest brass knuckles, Roman style.

    Always interesting trying to determine Roman genius.

  6. I’ve always been curious about those objects and it almost looks as though they’re part of a larger mechanism. Speaking of which, the Antikythera device is interesting.

    Those primitive old 400 BC Greeks weren’t supposed to know about differential gears, and the complexity and design of the thing seem to be on the level of a clock. Which makes me wonder — water clocks aside, were the ancients capable of making an accurate chronometer, at the level of, say, the 18th C?

    The Antikythera mechanism seems to hint at it, as do maps showing apparently accurate longitude and latitude (Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings). Fascinating if true, but the knowledge was lost if it was ever there.

    Sorry to get all historical, it’s “social studies” now. Grrr.

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