Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Mysterious Roman dodecahedron is ‘find of a lifetime’

A Roman dodecahedron unearthed on a community dig in Lincolnshire is the “find of a lifetime” and one of the finest examples of the rare mystery objects, archaeologists say.

Scores of the hollow 12-sided artefacts, cast in copper alloy, have been found across the Roman Empire’s former northern and western provinces — mostly in England and Wales, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. They are not mentioned in Roman literature and their purpose or significance has been a topic of speculation and debate since the 18th century.

The new example comes from the village of Norton Disney, near Lincoln, close to the site of a Roman villa discovered in 1933. Excavations between 1934 and 1937 found evidence for the villa’s occupation from the mid-first century AD to the mid-fourth century. During that time, it evolved from simple timber structures to a complex of mostly stone-built buildings with features such as mosaic floors and underfloor heating.

Three years ago the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group, working with commercial firm Allen Archeology, started an excavation at Potter Hill, where a geophysical survey and aerial photographs suggested there were further archaeological features. There, last year, 25 volunteers under professional supervision, discovered a pit filled with Roman pottery and demolition rubble. Then came the big surprise.

The copper alloy late Roman dodecahedron on the day of its discovery last year. Photo: Richard Parker / Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group

Richard Parker, the archaeology group’s secretary, said: “I was making the tea at the time. There’s a big shout goes up, a bit of swearing and you think, oh somebody had an accident. So I go running over there and then Richard, who found it on site, was holding it up — Oh my goodness me, you’ve found a dodecahedron. I’ve only read about those. I’ve never seen one.

“We’d hardly found any metalwork up until that point. Then suddenly, we have a 250g, 8cm-wide copper alloy dodecahedron in its archaeological context, in what was possibly a quarry pit. And the questions then arise of whether it was deliberately placed there, for whatever reason, and what the context of the masonry was. We are about 700m from the Roman villa, so are we on the site of another building of high status, on top of the hill and close to the Fosse Way?”

“Our small Lincolnshire amateur archaeology group were thrilled to have made the find of a lifetime. There may be a lot more to discover about one of archaeology’s great enigmas!” 

The discovery of the Norton Disney dodecahedron means that 33 of these puzzling objects have now been unearthed in Britain. Altogether, around 130 Roman dodecahedra, dating from about the second to fourth centuries, have been recorded by archaeologists. They range in size from that of a golf ball to a cricket ball and are all unique in weight and dimensions. They have holes of different sizes in each face and studs at each corner.

Members of the community dig in Lincolnshire pose with the mysterious dodecahedron. Photo: Richard Parker / Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group

Newcastle University doctoral student Lorena Hitchens, who advised the group on the significance of the find, has been studying Roman dodecahedra for her PhD. She said she had her work cut out “because the Romans don’t mention these at all — no inscriptions, no writings, no pictorial depictions, nothing.”

She added: “Dodecahedra are some of least understood objects to survive from the Roman Empire. The find from Lincolnshire is exceptional not just because it’s the first to have been found in the Midlands, but also because it is a very large, very finely-made example in excellent condition and 100 per cent complete. Importantly, it was found in a modern controlled dig, right where it was buried. All those factors together — size, condition, provenance — make it a truly exceptional find.” 

The archaeological record is especially valuable because little is known about the find contexts of many other dodecahedra now in private or museum collections.

Theories around the objects’ purpose range from surveying devices to candle-holders, tools for wool crafts or the heads of weapons or sceptres. Given the skill and complex techniques needed to produce them, some have suggested that they were showpieces intended to demonstrate metalworkers’ abilities.

Reenactors in costume as Roman soldiers — Norton Disney was on the Fosse Way, a major Roman strategic route. Photo: Shutterstock

However, Hitchens believes the inconsistency in their sizes and a lack of wear on most examples makes these ideas unlikely. She said: “There are many theories out there but none with solid evidence to support them. As I said on Digging for Britain, archaeologists have most frequently agreed on a ritual or symbolic purpose for dodecahedra, but after that, the trail runs cold as there is nothing to compare them with and no historical documentation or visual depictions of them.”

What is her own instinct? She said: “My research is ongoing, so I don’t have any findings that I can share at this time. They’re likely to be ritual.”

For his part, Parker said: “Our working theory is it’s some sort of religious or ritual device. The Romans were a highly superstitious society. They didn’t move unless the omens told them to move. And I would very much go along with the theory that it’s some sort of device that helped them make decisions through their ritual or religious beliefs.

“We’ve had some XRF [X-ray fluorescence analysis] done on it. It’s about 67 per cent copper, about 7 per cent tin, and then the rest is lead. That’s a very high lead composition, which hints that it’s not a particularly practical object, because it would be prone to damage if you started dropping it or throwing it around. And why does it need to be so heavy?”

Have any other signs of Roman ritual activity been found nearby? Parker said: “Very close by, in 1989, another copper alloy object, a figure of Mars as a horseman, was found. It’s now in the British Museum. So it helps build the jigsaw of a possible religious site on top of the hill. You can see for miles from up there. The question is, whether people were looking down, or, possibly, looking up at something spectacular on top of the hill.”

The excavation last summer involved 25 volunteers working in four trenches. Photo: Richard Parker / Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group

As Parker mentioned, Norton Disney is very close to the Fosse Way — a major Roman Road that ran from Exeter to Lincoln. The villa is proof of the wealth of the local landowners. Parker said there was evidence of iron-smelting in the area during the Iron Age, which may be linked. “Chances are, that industry continued on into the Roman period and may have produced some of the wealth that led to the building of the villa. It’s not uncommon that an Iron Age estate became a Roman estate and the local Britons took on all the trappings of Roman living. At Norton Disney, they happened to be on a good site for both agriculture and iron production which, in the Roman period, would certainly have produced a lot of money.”

He hopes further excavations will transform our understanding of the villa’s surroundings. “Have we got another, missing high status building within the landscape? We’re getting hints that we may be onto something special. We intend returning to the same site in 2024, provided we have raised enough money for another excavation. Because we never managed to finish the [2023] excavations of our trenches three and four, the plan is to go back and continue with those excavations and try to understand the context of the dodecahedron. There may be clues within those trenches to what they were used for as well.”

Hitchens believes the discovery at Norton Disney brings us closer to solving the mystery, even if there is never any “smoking gun”. She said: “Well, it would be wonderful if we unearthed a mosaic or a Vindolanda tablet that showed or said plainly how dodecahedra were used. Job done. However, I think it is doable to understand dodecahedra better than we do now, absolutely. Wish me luck!”

Although these copper alloy dodecahedra are restricted to one corner of the Roman empire, smaller dodecahedra in gold, with similar holes and studs, have been found in southeast Asia, with the early examples dating from around this period. It is not known whether there is any link, although the region was connected to the Roman Empire via trade routes.

Professor Alice Roberts, who presents Digging for Britain, said: “I do love an archaeological mystery, and this has to be one of the greatest, most mysterious archaeological objects I’ve ever had the opportunity to look at it up close. It’s just extraordinary.”

The Norton Disney dodecahedron will be on display at Newark Museum’s National Civil War Centre for three months from January 3. For more information about the Norton Disney History and Archaeology group, including details of how to make a donation towards the next excavation, you can visit their website at nortondisneyhag.org.  The site also has details of the village’s connection to the d’Isigny, or Disney, family of Norman origin and to American animator Walt Disney who visited in 1949 “on the trail of his ancestors”.

The dodecahedron will feature in episode four of the next series of Digging for Britain, which will be broadcast at 8pm on January 9 on BBC 2 and available on iPlayer from January 2. The image at the top of the article shows presenter Professor Alice Roberts with the artefact. Photo: Rare TV / BBC

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