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.


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