Amateur archaeologist Patrick Schuermans was wandering around a field in northern Belgium when his metal detector alerted him to the presence of something underfoot. When he located the item in question, he realized it might be something special.
He had stumbled upon a fragment of a 12-sided Roman object called a dodecahedron. It’s likely more than 1,600 years old, according to the experts at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, Belgium, where Schuermans took the fragment in December. His find will now go on display at the museum alongside an intact bronze dodecahedron found nearby in 1939.
Schuermans, who has been hunting with his metal detector for years, found the fragment near the town of Kortessem in Flanders. His discovery is only the second known dodecahedron found in the area, per a statement from the government-run Flanders Heritage Agency. Experts believe the piece belonged to a dodecahedron that measured roughly two inches across.
Dodecahedrons have long perplexed archaeologists and historians. They are typically 12-sided geometric objects made of metal with hollow centers. They’re about the size of a baseball and are dotted with large holes; studs protrude from each corner.
Archaeologists have recorded more than 100 of the mysterious artifacts throughout northern Europe over the last 200 years, according to Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. They’re all different sizes and weights, spanning 1.5 to 4.5 inches, and they’ve only been found in the northwestern regions of the Roman Empire, many at ancient burial sites. So far, archaeologists have not come across any mention of the puzzling objects in written texts.
Nobody knows for certain how the Romans used them. Some theories are that they functioned as measuring devices, calendars, ornamental scepter toppers, weapons or tools.
Experts at the Gallo-Roman Museum have another idea: The Romans may have used them for magical rituals, such as predicting the future and sorcery, which Christianity—the religion of the later Roman Empire—forbade.
“These activities were not allowed, and punishments were severe,” says Guido Creemers, a curator at the Gallo-Roman Museum, to Live Science. “That is possibly why we do not find any written sources.”
The fragment has fractures on its surface, which suggests someone may have intentionally shattered it during a ritual, per the Flanders Heritage Agency statement.
Though the mystery of dodecahedrons endures, the new fragment may help offer some clarity. Today, many unearthed Roman dodecahedrons have no records indicating where they were found, Creemers tells Live Science. But because Schuermans knows the exact location of his discovery, experts can continue investigating the site for further clues.