A French researcher holds in his hands a Roman dodecahedron found in Metz, eastern France, in December 2020. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN (AFP via Getty Images)
It's a small piece of bronze, no bigger than a billiard ball.
A 12-sided polyhedron that, at each vertex, has a small round finish, like a sphere.
In each of its planes there is a hole carved, and each of these holes is of a different size.
It sounds mysterious and it is.
Of the so-called Roman dodecahedrons, in fact, it is not even known if they originated in Rome.
No written reference alludes to them, which makes it very difficult to interpret what place they occupied in society when they were alloyed.
The dodecahedrons were found for the first time at the beginning of the 18th century and were presented to the world in 1739. As confirmed by the archaeologist Néstor F. Marqués, some 120 have appeared to date. “Those, plus those that will be in some private and those of us who do not have news.
This is not a common object, but it is not rare either”, says the also director of
Ancient Rome al Día
, a network dissemination project.
After studying the dozens of theories that have been written about the dodecahedron for 300 years, the historian harbors some certainty: they were not merely decorative elements, due to the precision with which they had been cast.
"And why the holes of different sizes, then?" adds the author.
Plus another important revelation: the meaning that has been given to these figures throughout history speaks more about us than about them.
“At first, it was believed that they could be weapons or some other kind of war object, as part of a banner.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, it was thought, for example, that the holes could measure the trajectory of a projectile.
But this reflects, more than anything, the interests of historians at the time.
Military archeology was abundant and everything found was oriented towards there”, reflects Marqués.
Needless to tell how Europe was when those theories were formulated.
In fact, most of these pieces have appeared in present-day France, Germany or Great Britain.
Going further: Gaul, Germany and Britain.
For all these reasons, there are those who believe that the Roman dodecahedron was actually Celtic.
None of these objects has appeared in Italy, nor in North Africa, nor in the Iberian Peninsula,
Roman dodecahedron found in an area that currently belongs to the Netherlands.Alamy Stock Photo
Will they be magical items, then?
“In Plato and Pythagorean symbolism, polyhedrons have a lot of meaning.
The tetrahedron symbolizes fire and the octahedron, air.
The icosahedron, a 20-sided figure, represents water.
The hexahedron is the earth.
In this sense, the dodecahedron could allude to the whole, what encompasses them;
to the universe.
This theory is interesting, but it is difficult to prove it.
On these objects there is no mark that refers to the cosmos or the measurement of the stars”, argues Marqués.
Although some of these objects still appear today, the mystery never fades.
At the end of the 80s, a dodecahedron appeared in Germany that was part of the trousseau in the grave of a woman.
Next to it were remains of wax.
“Were they good for holding sails, then?
It seems unlikely, ”says the expert.
“It has also been suggested that they were measuring instruments, but there are dodecahedrons of very different sizes.
At the same time, the difference in the size of the holes does not seem to follow any pattern”, continues Marqués.
At this point, the so-called experimental archeology appears: adventurers who have launched to create Roman dodecahedrons thanks to three-dimensional printers.
The age of social media did the rest.
Some YouTube videos, which have accumulated more than 250,000 views, show that these could be used for weaving.
The small pivots in the vertices would help to tighten the thread and the holes would be useful to create shapes with the point, like the fingers of a glove.
“There are already those who have ruled this out, but an interesting door has been opened: that of the purely domestic.
Perhaps they would be worth playing, although they do not look much like a dice ”, points out Marqués.
According to this researcher, very far-fetched theories have been developed about them, such as that they did not even belong to the time and space where they were found: “Refuting theories always helps to forge a critical spirit.
The fundamental thing is that we continue studying history, reviewing how it has been told to us so far and with what interests.
And that we continue to find new pieces, always in a scientific context”.
This claim collides with the drift of the so-called archaeological plunder.
That is, that any individual armed with a metal detector can end up digging the ground and extracting a dodecahedron at random, without any type of procedure that allows it to be dated and located with precision.
Again, this phenomenon is closely related to the fever of social networks,
more mysterious objects
Roman dodecahedrons are not the only objects whose meaning hangs in the air.
Pedro Huertas, an expert in Roman military archeology and a museum guide, mentions the betilos, a kind of prehistoric idol with an elongated shape: "There are those who attribute them to sacred sexual rites, but many theories go different ways."
His favorite puzzle is the Antikythera mechanism, discovered in Greece a century ago.
This multi-piece artifact is somehow reminiscent of the steering wheel with which a ship's hatch would be opened;
also to the mechanism that we would find inside a watch.
Curiously, it was precisely experimental archeology that discovered, a year ago, what its mission was: predicting eclipses.
For his part, Marquis recalls the baths of Caracalla, in the same city of Rome.
There, the mystery was occupied by an ashlar with holes that turned out to be used to place the chips for a game.
The Romans liked to play a game to entertain themselves during the bath.
On the other hand, the mystery still hovers over four small holes in the counter of a
(inn) in Pompeii.
Would they be used to save the change?
, a kind of coin in which erotic drawings had been minted: “Today we know that they are more related to shows than to prostitution.
At first it was thought that they were tokens with which to pay in the brothels.
We said, these interpretations never speak so much about the objects studied as about ourselves.