The ancient site of Maresha, now part of a national park in Israel, was once a thriving city with a subterranean secret. Beneath the shops and houses that snaked through the city was a vast network of underground caves, hewn into soft chalk and serving a variety of possible purposes, from sites of worship to grain stores to clandestine hideouts.
Now, a study recently published in the journal Levant sheds light on an intriguing discovery made within the cave complex: more than 600 animal knucklebones, which appear to have been used for divination—and for fun.
Researchers discovered the knucklebones “several years ago” in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park, according to a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Sourced from the remains of goats, sheep and cattle, the artifacts date to the Hellenistic period—which began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E.—and were made specifically from the astragalus, a small bone located in the tarsal joint of hooved animals.
These artifacts, called “astragali,” have been found in other locations around the ancient world, writes Ruth Schuster of Haaretz. But the Maresha astragali are notable for their “large quantity and good quality, and [their] many inscriptions,” says IAA zooarchaeologist Lee Perry-Gal, who co-authored the Levant paper, in the statement.
Twenty-four of the astragali were indeed etched with geometric shapes, numbers and Greek letters, reports Vittoria Benzine of Artnet. Some of the inscriptions, per the IAA, spell out the names of gods “associated with human wishes and desires”: These include Hera, goddess of marriage and women; Aphrodite and Eros, who were linked to fertility and love; and Nike, the goddess of victory.
Perry-Gal tells Haaretz that a large collection of astragali was discovered near a “small altar with wall etchings,” which suggests they were used in a ritual context—specifically divination, or the practice of discovering the will of the gods. Ancient peoples believed divine messages could be transmitted through a variety of mediums, including the entrails of dead animals, the stars, the behavior of birds and small bones or dice. “The underlying theory is that casting dice—or in this case, small bones—is a way to invoke or contact the superpowers,” writes Haaretz. Some of the bones were shaved down, perforated or filled with lead so they could be rolled more effectively.
Astragali themselves were thought to have protective powers; archaeologists have previously found the bones buried into the foundations of houses, likely because people believed they would bring good luck.
“In the past,” says Perry-Gal in the statement, “men, and especially women, struggled with an environment of uncertainty, death, childbirth and health issues, and [they] tried to protect themselves with the help of magic.”
But in this case, some of the astragali may have served a more lighthearted purpose: Inscribed with words and phrases like “Robber,” “Stop!” and “You are burnt,” they likely functioned as gaming dice. These finds are consistent with previous discoveries that point to astragali’s role in gaming. The knucklebones have, for example, been found in the graves of children, suggesting that they were seen as tokens that would accompany their owners “to the next world, to be used there,” adds Perry-Gal.
Experts do not know who made the astragali—or who used them. Between the fourth and second centuries B.C.E., the city was a multicultural hub populated by Phoenicians, Idumaeans, Nabataeans and Jews, among others.
“We couldn’t associate the find with a specific ethos,” Perry-Gal tells Haaretz.
But while their origins remain somewhat murky, these artifacts—rolled in times of anxiety, uncertainty and leisure—speak to universal human experiences.
“This fascinating research sheds light on the life and customs in the ancient world and reminds us that people are regular people all over the world,” says Eli Eskosido, director of the IAA, in the statement. “They dream and hope, and notwithstanding the harshness of daily life, they find time for playing and leisure.”