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What Is This Thing?

Archaeologists found a 12-sided object dating back to ancient Rome. They don’t know what it was used for.

A metal dodecahedron is held in a hand at an archaeological site.

Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group

Amazingly, this dodecahedron is 1,700 years old. No one knows why it was made.

Imagine if, hundreds of years in the future, someone finds something you own but they can’t figure out what it is. That’s the dilemma experts are facing now. In the summer of 2023, archaeologists discovered a 12-sided object called a dodecahedron in the English town of Norton Disney. They know the 1,700-year-old object was created by the ancient Romans, but they don’t know what its purpose was.

The dodecahedron is about the size of a grapefruit and made of copper, lead, and tin. Archaeologists say it was found in a hole where the Romans deliberately placed it, along with some pottery. Amazingly, it’s in very good condition.

Archaeologists have discovered more than 100 metal dodecahedrons around England and continental Europe. They all date from between the first and fifth centuries CE, around the time these parts of the world had been conquered by the ancient Romans. No one is sure what the dodecahedrons were used for because the Romans didn’t leave behind any written descriptions of them. Experts considered the idea that they were used as measuring tools, weapons, calendars, ornamental objects, or tools. But some of those possibilities are unlikely. For one thing, the objects are all different sizes.

“They are not of a standard size, so will not be measuring devices. They don’t show signs of wear, so they are not a tool,” says a blog post created by the group that’s excavating the Norton Disney site. Archaeologists say it would have taken a massive amount of work to create each of the dodecahedrons, which suggests they were used for something important.

The Norton Disney group believes the dodecahedrons had some sort of religious purpose. The one in Norton Disney was located near the spot where a metal figurine of a Roman god was found in 1989. And these types of figurines are often found where Roman temples once stood.

It’s possible that archaeologists will never be certain what the dodecahedron was for. For now, it’s one of history’s mysteries.

“It still holds many secrets,” Richard Parker of the Norton Disney group told Smithsonian magazine.

Fun Fact

© Massimo Todaro/stock.adobe.com, Composite illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Some ancient Romans dyed their hair using a mixture of vinegar and rotten leeches.

Strange Spheres

Several stone spheres of different sizes are on the grounds of a building.

© YURI CORTEZ—AFP/Getty Images

Some of Costa Rica’s stone spheres are on display outside the National Museum in San José, the capital city.

Hundreds of stone spheres of different sizes have been found in Costa Rica. Historians say they were carved by pre-Columbian people (people who lived before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas) sometime between 500 and 1500 CE…but like the Roman dodecahedrons, no one is sure why.

It would have taken a lot of work to carve the spheres. They’ve been discovered in locations far from where the source of the stone would be available. How did the people move all that stone?

The spheres are skillfully crafted. In fact, some of them are almost perfectly round. With no metal tools, how did people achieve this?

But the biggest question is why the spheres were created. Will we ever figure it out?

A Night Out in Ancient Rome

A cartoon gladiator stands in front of a photo of the ruins of the Colosseum.

© Mapics, Massimo Todaro/stock.adobe.com, Composite illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The ancient Romans left behind all sorts of things. In Rome, Italy, the Colosseum, where ancient Romans gathered for entertainment, still stands more than 1,900 years after it was built. While we might go to concerts or movies, the Romans often watched fighters called gladiators for entertainment.

You can read more about gladiators at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

relic

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:

: something that is from a past time, place, culture, etc. — often + of or from

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