What is a Roman Dodecahedra?
This small, hollow object has twelve flat pentagonal faces. Each face has a circular hole in the middle of it, and each hole is of a different diameter. All the holes connect to each other in the hollowed-out center of the object. Most have been found to have a series of knobs on the pentagons’ corner points. Typically ranging in size from 4 to 11 cm, the Roman Dodecahedra was usually made of bronze, but ones made of stone have also been found.
Roman Dodecahedra date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, and researchers are no closer to understanding the origin and function of this mysterious object since their original discovery. To date, more than one hundred of these artifacts have been found in Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Wales.
How does it work?
Sadly, there have been neither pictures nor documentation of them in contemporary accounts. All we have today are hypotheses, theories and speculations. Over the centuries, speculations have included the following: dice and dice games, survey instruments, candlestick holders (wax was found inside two examples), a tool for accounting, a toy to throw and catch on a stick, gauges to calibrate water pipes or army standard bases, devices for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain, surveying tool, tent pole joint, headpiece for a standard or staff, gaming device, finger ring-size gauges, weapon, or even a simple geometric sculpture.
The fact that the dodacahedrons were not standardized and come in many sizes, including the arrangements of their openings, can rule out their use as a common measuring instrument. Gallo-Roman sites have been the final resting place for some dodacahedrons suggesting it may have been religious artifact of some kind. No matter what the Roman Dodecahedra can be seen as valuable since several were found in coin caches and among other valuable items.
At the top of the list for most accepted theories is that the Roman Dodecahedra was used as a device for measuring range on the battlefield. The hypothesis is that dodecahedrons were used for calculating the trajectories of projectiles. John Ladd suggests that the dodecahedron was used as a quality control device on their military sites. The process would go something like this: a projectile would be lodged into the dodecahedron; fluid would then be poured into the dodecahedron tank to measure incremental displacement for all twelve angles, and based on the patterns of the holes, dictate the imaging resolution.
By inventing volume immersion techniques and the mathematics for interpreting the area and under the displacement curves of the ellipsoidal projectiles. It has been documented that wars were won or lost based upon the quality of sling ammo design. A similar theory involves the dodecahedra as a surveying and levelling device. However, neither of these theories has been supported by any proof and exactly how the dodecahedrons could be used for these purposes has not been fully explained.
According to G.M.C. Wagemans, “the dodecahedron was an astronomic measuring instrument with which the angle of the sunlight can be measured and thereby one specific date in springtime, and one date in the autumn can be determined with accuracy. The dates that can be measured were probably of importance for the agriculture”. Nevertheless, this is still only a speculation.
Another unproven theory claims that the Roman Dodecahedra was a religious relic, which seems to be synonymous with “we haven’t a clue” in the vocabulary of archaeologists. They are thought to once be used as sacred tools for the druids of Britannia and Caledonia. One was reportedly found in a woman’s burial ground leading more to this idea. Without a written account or archaeological evidence this view cannot be supported.
Plutarch, the famous Greek historian, reportedly identified the dodecahedron as a vital instrument for zodiac signs. The twelve sides represent the twelve animals in the circle of the zodiac, but even this theory comes under contest when the argument of the knobs as decoration is presented.
“My take is that it is yet another piece the use of which we shall never completely sort out even though we are fortunate to have Plutarch’s testimony,” said Andrea Galdy, who holds a PhD from the School of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Manchester and is currently teaching Art History in Florence, Italy.
Another discovery deepens the mystery about the function of these objects. Some time ago, Benno Artmann discovered a Roman Icosahedron, a polyhedron with twenty faces, misclassified as a dodecahedron from just a glance. It is also hollow, bronze, and about 8 cm in diameter.
This Roman Icosahedron ended up in a museum’s basement storage for over forty years before noticed it again. The discovery raises the question about whether there are many other geometric artifacts of different types such as, icosahedra, hexagons, and octagons yet to be found in the former Roman Empire.
Roman Systems Engineering
RSE is using what we believe to be the same technology that Romans used in ancient history, to essentially complete 3D scanning in today’s world. Using a computer and the ancient Roman Dodecahedra we can obtain the dimensions and shape of any object placed within the device. The Roman Dodecahedra has the perfect shape to allow multiple angles of measurement.
Unlike modern 3D scanners, this ancient technology could allow for mapping within the by utilizing modern low-viscosity cavity detection fluids that penetrate an opaque and porous medium. This is even more impressive when you find that most scanners on the market today are limited by line-of-sight.
The decorations of these items also vary from plain to having rings embossed concentrically around the holes, while others have small rings arranged in the corner spaces around the holes. Maybe these objects exist for the sole purpose of being difficult to make. Imagine a metalworker proving his capability in casting, finishing, soldering, etc. with a portable object like the Roman Dodecahedra.
In archaeological sites throughout Northern Europe, at least one Roman Dodecahedra per site has been found. Sometimes they are broken or incomplete, but it’s a mystery why we have these devices spread across a wide region, with nobody knowing for sure what they do.
Maybe the answer is hiding in plain sight. The Romans were clever at keeping secrets from escaping their Empire in order for their foes to find and use. Right now everything about the Roman Dodecahedra is pure speculation. It appears this is another wonderful object the ancients have left us. Until we find an answer for what the Roman Dodecahedra was used for Don’t Stop Rome-ing