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!).

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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 😀 ). 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.

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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 😯

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More next time.

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