Last week, Turkish archaeologists announced an astonishing discovery: a Bronze Age burial site has yielded what may be the oldest gaming tokens ever discovered.
With pieces depicting pigs, dogs, pyramids and various round and oblong shapes, the set – carbon dated between 3,100 and 2,900 B.C.E – the set is notable not just for its age but its completeness. It makes the viewer feel like they could pick up the pieces and play.
But the pyramid pieces have attracted the most discussion, leading several writers and commenters to speculate that they may be ancient four-sided dice. Unfortunately that’s not correct – the archaeologists did find dice, but listed them separately from the pyramids, meaning that it’s probably that knobby, bony object in the middle of this picture. That aside, though, it’s an honest mistake – particularly since the humble d4 and other modern-looking polyhedral dice were not unknown in the ancient world.
Given this new chapter in gaming history, the newly-released D&D edition and the glorious bags-of-dice madness that is GenCon, I thought this might be a good time to look back on the history of our tabletop workhorses – so here are seven facts about dice, an invention that went from the palace, to the gambling den to the temple.
We’ve Unearthed 5,000 Year-Old Dice
The oldest dice ever found were excavated in the Bronze-Age city of Shahr-i Sokhta (“The Burnt City”), in present-day Iran. The Burt City has yielded many incredible finds, including the first artificial eyeball, a pot painted with what’s considered the first animation, and a backgammon set from 3,000 B.C.E. – about 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.
However, just because the Burnt City set were the first dice discovered doesn’t mean that’s where dice originated. In fact, historians have several competing theories on where came from – varying from The Indus Valley Civilization to the Middle East – but it’s also likely that dice were developed independently in multiple regions, probably evolving from lots, casting stones and similar random number generators.
Wherever they started, dice made their mark quickly. Dice or other forms of random number generation appear in many ancient texts. In India they’re mentioned in the Vedas, in the Buddha’s teachings, and in the epic poem Mahabharata, where a high-stakes dice game initiates a war. The Old Testament contains multiple references to casting lots, often as a form of divination. By 2,000 B.C.E., Egyptians were using several types of polyhedral dice in games – including some like d4s and d10s that would look familiar on a modern D&D table.
The Oldest Known d20 Is From Ptolemaic Egypt
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a sizeable number of dice in its collection, including the oldest known example of an icosahedron, better known as a twenty-sided die or d20. Carved from serpentine stone between the 2nd century B.C.E. and 4th century C.E., the die is the oldest of three Ptolemaic icosahedrons in the Met’s collection. Though historians can’t be sure what game the Egyptians played with these dice, the fact that they’re covered with Greek letters rather than numbers – Macedonian Greeks ruled Egypt during this period – suggest to me that they may have been mated to a specific board or have been part of a word game. Regardless, the game must’ve spread to other cultures, since the Romans manufactured similar icosahedrons from glass. (If you want one for your D&D campaign, Christies sold one for $17,925 back in 2003.)
Loaded Dice Reached Their Peak in the Wild West
Now mostly a joke in tabletop circles, loaded dice are probably as old as dice themselves. Mentioned as far back as the Mahabharata, it wasn’t long until someone figured out that by shaving edges, rounding sides or drilling a weight into one side you could create a pair of dice that wins more than it loses.
While examples exist dating back to Roman times, crooked dice reached their peak during the Wild West period, when mail order catalogues offered dozens of options for the discerning cheat. There were mis-spotted dice that repeated numbers. There were classic loaded dice with the pips drilled out, filled with metal, and repainted. Cups with hidden chambers that could swallow fair dice and drop tampered ones. Some gambling houses went high technology, embedding electromagnets under their tables and birdcage turners, which insured at the flip of a switch that their iron-impregnated dice turned up double sixes.
Modern loaded dice are ingeniously technical. Some, called “tappers,” have mercury drops in a central reservoir that run into a capillary tube when you tap them on the table, throwing off the weight. Others contain a metal with a low melting point, so a gambler can cause it to run to one side by applying body heat. That’s the reason all casino dice these days are clear.
Dice-Based Board Games Entertained Kings
When archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the royal tombs at Ur back in the 1920s, he made a curious discovery – five game boards made up of twenty squares that he dubbed “The Royal Game of Ur.”
Back in 2,600 B.C.E., the Royal Game was a favorite of the Sumerian upper class, so popular that the nobility often had boards buried with them so they could continue playing in the next life. These weren’t plain wooden boards either – The British Museum has one inlayed with shell, red limestone and rare minerals that were imported from Afghanistan. (And you thought Warhammer 40,000 was expensive.)
The Royal Game of Ur (also known as “the Game of Twenty Squares”) was an international phenomenon. It swept through ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq) and spread as far as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus and Crete. It transcended class, too – 2,700 years ago, bored soldiers scratched a version of the board into an Assyrian palace’s limestone gateway so they could play on duty.
For decades historians could only speculate on the game’s rules, but in the early 1980s, Dr. Irving Finkel found a cuneiform tablet describing the game’s rules. The Royal Game was, as historians suspected, a race game where players tried to clear their pieces off the board first – but to enter the board they also had to roll a specific number on tetrahedral dice (d4s).
If you’re curious about how it plays, you can buy a copy from the British Museum.
They’re Called “Bones” Because That’s What They Used to Be
Before dice were fully adopted, Greeks and Romans played “Knucklebones,” several different games involving the knobby anklebones of a sheep, goat or calf. While Knucklebones was primarily the original form of the children’s game we call Jacks, there was also a gambling version that involved throwing marked Knucklebones on a table surface as a random number generator. While dice took over this role and made this offshoot of the game die out, it’s still immortalized in the expression “rolling the bones.”
Dice Were – And Still Are – Used for Divination
The ancients thought dice rolls were literally determined by the gods. Anytime you call on Lady Luck when you’re rolling to dodge, you’re reciting the nickname of Fortuna, daughter of Zeus, whom the Romans believed controlled games of chance. It should be no surprise then, that many cultures practiced cleromancy, or divination through the casting of stones, bone fragments, wooden lots or dice.
In Scandinavia, a soothsayer would cast marked twigs on the ground and pick up three at random, deciphering a message from the runes marked on them. In China, there’s a similar practice called Kau Cim, where supplicants will ask a question then shake a cup full of one hundred bamboo sticks marked with characters-the first stick to fall out tells you what numbered fortune to look up. The Old Testament depicts the Israelites casting lots to determine everything from land disputes, to who determining guilt in a crime, to which passenger they need to throw overboard (spoiler: it’s Jonah). And the mathematics and numerology-obsessed Pythagorean sect reportedly rolled dice for divination. However one place that still practices cleromancy is modern Tibet, where people consult the dice in professional, healthcare or travel decisions.
The practice, known as Mo, involves a petitioner asking a question and rolling three six-sided dice, then interpreting the result by looking it up in a book written by a lama. The belief goes that Manjusri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom will affect the dice roll and direct the petitioner to the correct answer or a helpful passage. Apparently the Dalai Lama himself uses Mo when faced with a tough decision – though he uses a different method similar to the Chinese Kau Cim, but with possible answers folded up inside balls of dough and shaken in a cup.
You’ve probably practiced cleromancy yourself – that Magic 8 Ball is just a floating d20.
A Soldier’s Best Friend
Anyone who’s studied military history can tell you that being a solider often means a lot of waiting around. It’s hardly surprising, then, that dice have been a soldier’s best friend since at least the Roman era.
Dice are small and easy to transport, with little upfront cost and no other accessories needed to play. Besides, while soldiers might tire of a board game over time, the added element of wagering gave dice a drama that never got old. It’s therefore unsurprising that there are references to soldiers gambling with dice in almost every historical period – even in the Bible, where Romans soldiers diced over Jesus’s clothes.
Most militaries discouraged gambling amongst the ranks since fights and discipline problems inevitably followed, but even so it’s fairly common for archaeologists to find dice in forts or old campsites.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.