Roman Counter Culture: Game over

Well, we’ve come to the last week of our Roman gaming counters project (for now anyway), and this week has been filled with frothy frivolity.

Obviously what might be considered ‘frothy frivolity’ is relative. In this case, I refer to a day spent digitising a number of dice made from a range of materials, not just the animal bone we’ve been working on so far. This gave us an opportunity to ascertain which materials are most suited to this process and how the different materials  show up in the digital scans.

Guy was still working on this sad specimen


But he did actually get it looking respectable. Good work Guy.

I started off with this copper die.


It doesn’t really look like copper, neither in the scan nor in the flesh, but I am assured (by the label) that copper it is.


Guy also had a die that looked pretty similar


The difference in weight is telling though. My die weighed about 1.5 grams whereas Guy’s was over 4 grams. Why? Guy’s is made from lead (it’s ok, we’re wearing gloves).


Lead on the left, copper on the right.

I also had this gorgeous (possibly) jet die. It’s a stunner.


I say ‘possibly’ because there are a number of materials that are very like jet, and look like jet, and are often used in the same ways as jet, but aren’t actually jet. Without carrying out destructive tests on the die, we can’t really tell which this is. The die is in very good condition and (I believe) it was found in a funerary context so it’s possible that there may be some cultural, ritual or other significance in the use of the material*.

I tried and tried to scan this die, but it just didn’t work very well. Not only is the the black too dark on the background, it’s also, somehow, too dense. It’s ended up looking like the Borg cube. This die will have to be photographed on a lighter background.


During this project we’ve been recording each die according its numbering arrangement. For a solid (1 piece) six-sided die with ‘Standard’ numbering (i.e. with the values of opposing sides equaling 7) there are 16 possible variants in the exact layout and orientation of the pips.


For a last little experiment, Glynn gave us an assembledge of tiny dice which were found together with bone-working waste, and which are thought to be evidence of a production centre. They’re not Roman. They’re medieval.


They’ve been registered as a single find, but Glynn wanted us to have a look at each die individually. Specifically to look at the pip-arrangement. Pretty quickly it became obvious that these all have the same, Type 16′ arrangement which, together with the observations about the find spot including the presence of bone-working waste, starts to raise questions about modes of production.

Looking very closely, we could see the tool marks from the tool (awl?) for making the pips. It appears that the production of dice had, by this time, become more standardised, including the standardisation of the pip layout and orientations. Apparently, at this workshop, there was only one way to (make a) die.


Several of the dice are burnt. You can see the differences in colour in the image above. The white one on the right is fully burnt, the dark one on the left is somewhat singed and the one at the top is undamaged.

We’ll be investigating all of this a bit further, as we will be revisiting this project next year (probably February/March). We’ve digitised about half the dice in the LAARC collection and we’re keen to produce a complete set of digital records.

Finally from me, during the day we also had a super-special, very mysterious secret object. It’s so mysterious that I’m not even going to tell you what it is. You may consider me a little naughty for tantalising you with the unfulfilled promise of something very special, but if you’re really that interested I’d suggest that you get yourself along to the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC 2015) at the University of Leicester on 27th-29th March 2015. Glynn will be giving a talk on the object. I’m not sure of the specific slant yet, but it’s bound to be good (TRAC is really good in any case, so do go).

Alla prossima


* Finds specialist Lindsay Allason-Jones has produced this short paper on jet and shale and there are some references to follow up if you’re interested in jet and jet-like materials:


5 thoughts on “Roman Counter Culture: Game over

  1. A shame we know so little about the games involved. Was “snake eyes” unlucky as it is for modern day gamblers? I suppose the reality of cubes mandates that games with one die involve 1 – 6 and with two 2-12. Guess the Romans, so clever in so many foxy ways, never thought of the kinds of odd dice used in Dungeons and Dragons and so forth. Or…..are there dice with 8, 10, 20 sides? Looking forward to you eventually dishing on the mystery object. My money is on an Antikytheria type gizmo to forecast the weather in Britannia. All the dials of course read dingy and wet….Badger

  2. Pingback: Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – Fun and games | moose and hobbes

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