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Amateur archaeologists uncover a mysterious ancient Roman artifact in England

The discovered dodecahedron is about the size of a grapefruit, larger than the usual
Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group
The discovered dodecahedron is about the size of a grapefruit, larger than the usual

A group of amateur archaeologists in England were on their second to last day of excavation last June when they discovered a find of a lifetime — a mysterious ancient artifact called a dodecahedron at a possible Roman site.

A dodecahedron is a circular copper alloy object between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit characterized by its 12-sided form, with various holes and knobs.

But its function remains unclear. Even though more than 100 have been found across Europe, the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group — the organization behind the latest find — describes the dodecahedron as one of "archaeology's great enigmas."

That's is largely because there are no known visual or written descriptions of dodecahedra in Roman literature, says the group's website.

According to Lorena Hitchens, a doctoral student in the U.K. studying all the Roman dodecahedra of Europe, there are many unproven theories about the dodecahedron's use — as a gauge, a rangefinder, a candlestick, a die for gambling or gaming, or knitting gloves, for example. She says that none of these theories are supported by evidence.

"A huge amount of time, energy and skill was taken to create our dodecahedron, so it was not used for mundane purposes," reads the Norton Disney website. They say that this object was most likely used for ritual and religious purposes.

"Roman society was full of superstition, something experienced on a daily basis," continues the website. "A potential link with local religious practice is our current working theory. More investigation is required though."

What makes this latest discovery unique is not only that the object was found fully intact in excellent condition, but also that it is the only example uncovered in the central region of England known as the Midlands.

Most of the found dodecahedra have been discovered in bits.

Additionally, it was found "where it was put deliberately 1,700 years ago for whatever reason," says Richard Parker, secretary for Norton Disney.

"Many of the known examples are divorced from their find-context, having been prized by collectors since the 18th century at least," says Hitchens. "There was a lot of horse-trading of these objects in the Victorian era and poor record keeping."

The archaeological group revealed the discovery in a BBC archaeology program called "Digging for Britain" earlier this month. It is currently on display at the National Civil War Centre at the Newark Museum in England.

The Norton Disney group will return to the excavation site this year to find out more about the circumstances surrounding this dodecahedron.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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