Roman Counter Culture: Live and Let Die (pl. ~ce)

Algeria was marvellous and I even managed to spot some gaming equipment while I was there, but now I’m back :D and back at the LAARC.

So, dice.

John and Guy have kindly saved some dice for me to digitize, although they (accidentally) saved the dodgy ones ;)

Getting back into the swing of the project was fun, and I deliberately chose a little challenge for myself this week. Did I say ‘little challenge’? I mean teeny tiny challenge.

This is my first die. It’s really small.


Here it is next to an ordinary staple remover so you can see just how really small it is.


Jokes abounded about travel Ludo and the like but, in all seriousness,  I can’t help but wonder what game this was used for. It’s barely visible to the naked eye!

Still, I like a challenge…

While I fiddled about with the smallest die in all the land, John was looking a bit green.


His die, which is also made from animal bone, must have been next to some object or substance that has turned it completed green (perhaps something made from copper).

However, it was Guy’s die that gave us all the best laugh this week.


The maker seems to have a little problem with pip-placement. Was this the first effort of a hopelessly incompetant apprentice? The result of a little too worshiping Bacchus at lunchtime ? Or just Dies Veneris (Friday).

The 5 face is just the most obvious train-wreck, but all the faces are wobbly.


Still, it has six-sides, albeit is a wide range of shapes and sizes, and all the numbers are there so, despite it’s cock-eyed-ness, it is actually a standard die.

This, however, is not.


Hmm. Looks a bit stone-like, doesn’t it? Here’s another couple of images.

Yes. Definitely stone-like.

It’s a stone.

Anyone who has ever dug an archaeological site will know how this happens in the field. You’re down a hole in the ground, up to your knees in mud, you can’t feel your fingers and it looks like rain. What’s this? Something vaguely cuboid. Just put it in the tray and we’ll look at in later, in the site hut.

Mind you, I think that I’m going to have to have another look at it. Having this larger image has made me wonder whether I can see the hint of a single pip in this face.


This might just be the ‘eye of faith’, but it ‘s better to check. Magnifying glass at the ready.

Next week is the last week scheduled for this pilot project so I’ll probably have a few frivolities to share.


Hail, Fellow Travellers

To anyone reading this, this blog post is basically aimed at about 6 people (you know who you are). Anyone else, these are a few pictures from my little jaunt to Algeria. You’re very welcome to have a look at the pretty pictures, so please don’t feel left out :D .

 First things first. Cats!



Algeria seems to be the perfect holiday destination for Crazy Cat People. It’s full of cats and people who love cats :D .





Awww, look at the lovely puddy-tats :D



Oh yeah, and humans!

Here’s Kamar in relaxed mode.



The one and only Mozabite who actually wanted his photo taken. He’s a peach :D


Immortalising the new BFFs.


This lovely Algerian family were visiting Timgad at the same time as us :D



Food (nom, nom).







These look nice, but a bit wasp-y.


And this abomination from Air France.


Shops, and shopkeepers.



The most beautiful greengrocer’s shop in all the land.


The Naughty Shop




The old world…



A brilliant olive oil press from Madauros. There are a few bits missing, but loads of it is there.



P1310977. P1310938.



The Mithraeum at Khemissa (Thubursicum Numidarum).


…and the new.





And a camel for luck.


Roman counter culture: Gaming on the go

I haven’t been at the LAARC this week due to being on my travels but don’t think that I’ve forgotten the marvellous digitisation project.

At all the Roman sites I’ve visited I’ve been on the lookout for any gaming equipment. I thought that Glynn, Guy and John might be interested in having a look at it.

Unfortunately, although I have seen some very nice and interesting gaming counters, in Algeria photography is not allowed in most of the museums. I say ‘most’ because today I struck lucky. At the small but perfectly-formed museum at Setif it was possible to purchase a ticket that allowed photography :D . I managed to find just three counters in the museum (in a case full of Roman bone hairpins!) so here they are.

This one is a convex bone counter with a dot-and-ring design.


These next two are made from the vertebrae of fish!



After leaving Setif we visited the Roman city at Timgad, Thamugadi. Founded in the first century CE under the Emperor Trajan, this was a prosperous site housing veterans and civilians, with a large theatre, baths, temples and a library.
But of particular interest in the context of this post is this…


It’s a gaming board!

We had a go at playing, which involved selecting a hole as a target and then trying to pitch a small stone into it from behind the line. Obviously I was rubbish at it, but it was good fun.

I’ll post any more gaming equipment that I can but for now, “marsalama”.

Roman Counter Culture: A Fistful of Fulhams

First things first, I must come clean and confess that Idon’t think that these dice are actually ‘Fulhams‘. My gaming partners in crime just wanted to get the name into a blog post, so there it is.

Wait. What now? Fulhams? ‘Fulhams’ are dodgy, hooky dice with which the unscrupulous sharps of Roman (and later) London separated the gullible from their cash. Sometimes they might have repeated high or low numbers, and/or they might have been weighted with a little drop of mercury, rigged to throw high or low. Today we’d call them loaded dice. We speculated on what 15th century Fulhamites had been getting up to to have acquired a notorious enough reputation to have dodgy dice named after them.

These ones are from the Museum of London website.


They’re not completely irrelevant though because this week we bit the bullet and worked on some rather tricky dice.

The dice from last time were relatively small and so could be made from one (more or less) solid cube of animal bone. The maximum size possible is determined by the thickness of the wall of the bone.


For larger dice is was necessary to piece together several pieces of bone. A (sort of) tube of bone made from a section of long-bone (a leg, say). The solid walls of the bone could be used to create four sides of the die. Then the two ends were plugged up using little pieces of bone to create the last two sides of the die, like this.

This kind of die was made in several pieces, and has a cavity inside, a feature of which those naughty shysters could take advantage.

Just to confuse matters further, two of our dice  had ‘irregular’ numbering. Mine went 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 6 and John’s had two 2s. Deliberate ploy or Friday afternoon?

John thinks it’s hilarious. Hilarious!


Mind you, John’s dice was a little the worse for wear.


But it’s very clear to see the bone structure, particularly in the ‘plug’.

I won’t be at the LAARC for the next couple of weeks (Boo :( ) because I’m off on pleasure bent again (Yay! :D ). Guy! Get some photos of the next couple of week’s plunder.

Roman Counter Culture: Time to Die

Fear not, gentle reader, this post will not be filled with foul murders, but with our first dice!

But first more counters and some highly scientific experiments.

You may remember this nice glass counter from last week…


Well, we were having some discussion about the difficulty for getting good definition on the edges when scanning these very dark-coloured counters, especially the dome-shaped ones where we’re losing the bottom edge of the image (we’ve also almost entirely lost the colour; this one is actually bottle green, but more on that issue at a later date).

Guy, John and I are testing the methodology of this project and working though any issues, so we decided that we’d do some experiments with different lighting to try to improve the definition in the images. First up was the torch app on my phone, followed by the whacking great anglepoise lamp that happened to be stowed on a shelf next to my work-spot and finally Glynn remembered that there was a fancy microscope lamp knocking about somewhere so that was retrieved and tested.


Randomly the mobile phone torch app seemed to be the best, mainly because the LED light is the whitest and so doesn’t cause colour distortions on the images. This is definitely a work in progress.

Anyway, aside from these experiments, we spent the morning scanning and recording counters. Here are a couple of mine made from animal bone and glass.

After lunch came the six-sided challenge that is dice.

This was a bit fiendish but actually really good fun and much of the potential fiendishness had already been worked through by Glynn and Michael when they devised the protocols.

Step 1: is the artefact a ‘standard’ dice. Do the spots on the opposing sides add up to 7?


Step 2: If ‘yes’ which of the 16 possible configurations of the spots do you have? (I know! Even on a ‘standard’ dice there are 16 possible configurations of spots!)


Step 3: Transfer the spot sequence onto the net (this is a representation of an unfolded dice).


Step 4: Decide upon a sequence for scanning the individual sides, starting with the ’6′ side.

Step 5: Start scanning…and so on.


Look at this concentration. It’s legendary :)


So far so good except for the vaguaries of scanner default settings, issues of artefact-scanner-bed positoning, inexplicable disappearances, mysterious black lines, skin-of-the-teeth margins and so on. These are the real-life issues that anyone carrying out this task will come across, and for which we are trying to find solutions and work arounds.


This is great and despite the, sometimes, random issues that crop up, the images are great and the process does work well :D

We’ll be working on more dice next week but this week we went from the LAARC down to London Wall Bar & Kitchen for the Museum of London’s Volunteer Party. These parties are always fun and they include the Marsh Awards for Museum of London Volunteers. The lovely Sue won Volunteer of the Year (Go Sue!), but we also have a surprise when John also won an award for Volunteer Team of the Year as part of the Sainsbury Archive Team. Yay John :D

And just as a token of the Museum’s appreciation, volunteers were all given a cool Sherlock Holmes bag and a copy of the exhibition Catalogue. I has better go and see the exhibition :D


More next time.

Roman Counter Culture: Game on

This week was ALL about the counters. In a range of materials and sizes and presenting a range of issues for consideration in the digitization process.

As Guy, John and I are the guinea pigs for this project, we’re reviewing each step quite carefully to refine processes and solve any problems that we come across, so we started off this week by reviewing some of the animal-bone counters that we’d looked at last week.  One in particular caused a great deal of squinting and chin-scratching.

Here’s Glynn squinting.


And here’s the reverse face of the counter in question. What can you see?


How about now?


There was a bit of discussion about scratch marks on counters and what they might signify. Is it deliberate? A maker’s or owner’s mark for example. Is is use wear? Just scratches caused by pushing the counter around on a stone board. How on earth can we tell?

It has been suggested that there may be an inscribed ‘X’ on the counter in the image above but, to be honest, I’m not that convinced. It’s really very faint and only barely an ‘x’ at all. I’ve actually enhanced the images to try to show up the scratches a bit more so it’s even fainter than it looks in the images. I can’t help thinking that if it was deliberate it would be a bit more obvious, so I’d go with use wear as the cause. What do you think?

I’ve made this judgement call on the basis of scant data. Really just by looking at the single counter and going “hmmm”, which is where these digitisation projects come into their own. Making far more of this kind of data available in an easily accessible and comparable format will put researchers in a far better position to compare examples and draw out any patterns.

Moving on from examples made from animal bone, this week I had several glass counters. They vary in size but they are basically all made the same way: by dropping a blob of molten glass onto a flat(-ish ) surface and leaving it to set.

Many of the examples of these that have been found in London are opaque black or white, but the first one that I had out of the box was actually bottle green translucent glass.


In the scan, and to the eye when not holding it up to the light, it  looks much darker; almost black. We’re going to try some experiments with lighting to see if we can show up the colours better and to define the edges more clearly, but for the moment, they do come out quite well.

The scans often show up very subtle features on the artefacts, but a side-effect of this sensitivity is that sometimes a scanner-bed that looks pretty clean to the eye ends up looking like the milky-way in the scanned image.


Don’t worry. I didn’t use this image. It was just too mucky. Some judicious screen-cleaning improved it enormously.

The last three counters of the afternoon were of a type that is made from the recycled bases of pots.

Now we had some discussion about these too, as they throw up a pretty fundamental question: are these actually gaming counters? I mean, for a start, they’re much bigger than other types of counters. This doesn’t necessarily discount them of course. They could have been used to play a specific game that required larger counters. We also know that recycled pot bases could be used for other things; for example, as stoppers or bungs for barrels,  jars or amphorae, as pot lids, as trivets, lots of things. So how can we be sure that these were actually used as counters?

Well unless they have been found in an unequivocally game-y environment – laid out on a board, as a set, with symbols scratched in them etc, we can’t. Another judgement call situation, but one which is often made at the actual excavation site. Again, our role with this project is to record and make available this data. If they are subsequently discounted as counters, that’s fine.*


Guy did also have this stone counter which posed the alarmingly obvious question: is it a stone counter or just  a stone?


Again, the original context helps with that judgement call.

So all in all, we had a good day and worked through a lot of issues. We even came up with a couple of good hacks in the digitization process, which remove a couple of steps, so we’ll pass those on when we pass on the baton to our successors.


* There has also been a suggestion made that these ceramic discs were used as toilet paper. It was in the British Medical Journal, but it sounds a bit odd to me. I’m not sure that I’d want to wipe my bum with them.

Sorry, the link is to the Daily Fail so this could all be absolute rubbish. Don’t click on it if you don’t want to.

Roman Counter Culture: Welcome to the Pleasuredome

I’ve just started working on the latest LAARC archiving project and I’m very excited about it. A new flexible working policy at my work has allowed me to escape the rat race one day a week and enter the seedy underbelly of Roman gambling dens (in my mind!).


Anyway, this project follows on from the excellent Roman bone hairpins digitization  project, carried out as part of its wider Collections Online project. Now it’s Roman gaming equipment and (award winning) Glynn has drafted in MOLA’s small-finds specialist Michael Marshall to develop a set of protocols for us to use (thanks Michael :D ). I’m joining LAARC usually-suspects Guy and John for the next few weeks as guinea pigs on this pilot project, and we’re working on the range of, mainly, bone, ceramic and glass counters and dice held at the LAARC, all recovered from digs in London.


We start off looking at the range of artefacts that exist for gaming; counters, different kinds of dice and dice shakers, gaming boards, knucklebones and others. Gaming in Roman London is especially well-represented by counters and dice but these wouldn’t all have been associated with ‘a sucker a minute’ gambling, there were also less exploitative pastimes like board games as well.

There artefacts raise a number of questions about Roman pastimes many of which fall under the general heading of “how were they actually used?” Here’s Michael’s example: you walk into a room and you see a board laid out on a table. The board is divided up into squares of equal size, coloured in alternating colours and on it are laid out, what appear to be, sets of gaming pieces. So far so good. But how do we know what game is actually represented by the board and pieces? The rules, tactics, variations? How do you win the game? What about changes to the game? Has it changed over time? Has it been standardised, have the rules and/or the gaming pieces become more formulaic?

There are also questions about the artefacts themselves. Questions such as, is it even a gaming counter? How do we know? Is it actually Roman? When is a stone not a stone?


A stone counter, or a stone?

Now, this 8 week (one day a week) project can’t hope to answer all these questions but we can at least make a start on some of them and with more and more of the collections being made available online, some other clever people might be able to work out some of the answers too.

So after spending much of the morning discussion tactics, we made a start on digitising and creating records for individual artefacts. We started on counters because dice seemed like too much of a leap into the unknown (I’ll explain why later…much later).

P1270727Home from home.

Now although we had Michaels’ protocols, the infinite nuances in each piece still resulted in a great deal of discussion of which edge type was represented, how to describe irregularities, chamfered-v-bevelled, top, bottom, front, back, obverse, reverse aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh :/ and that’s before we even get onto the fiendishness of actually scanning the objects. We suffered from a lot of light pollution on the scanners which necessitated some creative solutions involving black plastazote. We were scanning the top/front – the obverse and the back/bottom – the reverse so there was also the knotty problem of which way to flip. I bet you never even knew such problems existed.


Some counters look like this (above)

It’s worth the effort though, as they come out really well. Below is, more or less, how they’ll look online (the final image doesn’t have the grid-lines on it and it shows both faces, rather than just the obverse, but you can see how well the actual image comes out).


We also discussed, at length, the utter fiendishness of dice. I’m not going to go into all of the hideous complications here, as it will just upset you (and me), but when we start on the digitization of these tricky little characters, I’ll  try to explain it. Suffice it to say, they have 6 faces. 6 8O


More next time.