In the serene countryside of Norton Disney, England, amateur archaeologists have unearthed a puzzle from the Roman era. A Roman dodecahedron, an artifact shrouded in mystery, was discovered during a two-week archaeological dig. It’s one of over 130 such artifacts previously found across Europe and one of the 33 found in Roman Britain. They all look very much the same, although each is unique in its own way. Despite years of research, their purpose remains baffling to scientists.
Even though the exact purpose of these Roman constructs is elusive, they’re still significant. The find was made by Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group, a team of enthusiastic volunteers who were using metal detectors to hunt for buried Roman coins. Richard Parker, the group’s secretary, described the dodecahedron as “the find of a lifetime.” Remarkably well-preserved and undamaged, this 12-sided metal object has survived 1,700 years underground.
The dodecahedron, resembling a grapefruit in size and made of copper alloy, stands out with its 12 flat pentagonal faces, each featuring circular cut-outs and corner studs. Unlike most other dodecahedrons that are fragmented, this particular artifact is intact and excellently preserved. Another unique feature is that this recently unearthed one is slightly larger than other dodecahedrons that have been found, although they all fit in a person’s palm.
Some suggest they were used as religious objects, perhaps connected to astrology or even as talismans to ward off evil spirits. Others propose a more utilitarian role: could they have been tools for knitting, weaving, or measuring distances? The diversity of hole sizes has also led to speculation about their use as a calendar in determining optimal sowing dates for agricultural purposes.
Yet, none of these theories have been conclusively proven. These artifacts, some dating back to the first century C.E., lack historical references in visual or textual form, hence the enigma. The notion that the dodecahedrons were used for surveying to measure distance seems the least likely as every device found thus far lacks standardization. But that’s not to say that it was just made for show.
“A huge amount of time, energy and skill was taken to create our dodecahedron, so it was not used for mundane purposes, especially when alternative materials are available that would achieve the same purpose. The most likely use we think is for ritual and religious purposes,” the group wrote in a blog post.
“Roman society was full of superstition, something experienced on a daily basis. A potential link with local religious practice is our current working theory. More investigation is required though.”
The Norton Disney dodecahedron can now be viewed at the National Civil War Centre, Newark Museum, Appleton Gate, Newark in Nottinghamshire. There is no charge for visiting the part of the museum that is exhibiting the Norton Disney dodecahedron.
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