Researchers have long been puzzled by the Roman dodecahedron. More than 100 of these strange 12-sided metal objects have been found throughout Europe—but their purpose remains unclear. Now, another discovery in England’s countryside has reignited the mystery surrounding the ancient artifacts.
A volunteer with the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group unearthed the dodecahedron in the Lincolnshire village of Norton Disney over the summer. The group’s secretary, Richard Parker, tells Smithsonian magazine the artifact is “the find of a lifetime.”
“[Dodecahedrons] are one of archaeology’s great enigmas,” he says. “Our example is remarkable. It’s in an excellent condition—considering it’s been buried for 1,700 years—and complete with no damage.
As Parker tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe, the group was performing a two-week search for artifacts in a field where metal detectorists had previously discovered Roman coins and broaches. When the dodecahedron appeared in the excavation’s final days, “we were completely surprised by it,” says Parker.
The hollow, grapefruit-sized object is made of copper alloy, as the Norton Disney group writes on its website. Its 12 flat sides are punctuated by circular cut-outs and studs on each corner.
According to the group, the discovery brings the number of dodecahedrons unearthed in Roman Britain to 33, while about 130 have been discovered throughout the Roman Empire’s northwest provinces. This one stands out because it’s still in one piece, while many of the others were found fragmented or damaged.
“It is well cast, complete with no damage,” writes the group. “It is an example of very fine craftsmanship, finished to a high standard.” The newly discovered dodecahedron is also larger than many of its counterparts, some of which are as small as a golf ball, reports Live Science.
Some Roman dodecahedrons date to as early as the first century C.E. However, no visual or textual references to the objects have been found in historical records. Lacking context, the dodecahedron has become an enduring mystery of the Roman Empire.
“Nobody knows for certain how the Romans used them,” wrote Smithsonian magazine’s Sarah Kuta last year. “Some theories are that they functioned as measuring devices, calendars, ornamental scepter toppers, weapons or tools.”
The Norton Disney group thinks most of these theories are unlikely. Parker says the piece was cast in “sticky,” leaden metal—making it difficult to mold—and was fragile in texture.
“A huge amount of time, energy and skill was taken to create our dodecahedron, so it was not used for mundane purposes,” writes the group, adding: “They are not of a standard size, so will not be measuring devices. They don’t show signs of wear, so they are not a tool.”
Instead, the group agrees with experts who think dodecahedrons were used for ritualistic or religious purposes. As Smithsonian magazine wrote last year, researchers at Belgium’s Gallo-Roman Museum have hypothesized that Romans used the objects in magical rituals, which could explain dodecahedrons’ absence from historical records: With the Roman Empire’s eventual embrace of Christianity came laws forbidding magic. Practitioners would have had to keep their rituals—and related objects—a secret.
“Roman society was full of superstition,” writes the Norton Disney group. “A potential link with local religious practice is our current working theory. More investigation is required, though.”
“It still holds many secrets,” Parker tells Smithsonian. “It is hoped some more scientific tests on the dodecahedron will reveal more clues about its possible use and purpose.”