The Roman dodecahedron in the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren (© Gallo-Roman museum)

A hobbyist archaeologist has found a fragment of a Roman-Gallo object known as a dodecahedron in Kortessem, a small town in an eastern Belgian province. Patrick Schuermans discovered the artifact, believed to be over 1,600 years old, while searching the province of Limburg in December using his metal detector. 

Dodecahedrons are 12-sided, hollow, geometric shapes that have small knobs at their corners and holes of different diameters on each pentagonal face. They have stumped researchers for centuries, considering the polygonal object does not feature in Roman writings or drawings

Guido Creemers, a curator at the Gallo-Roman Museum, suggests that people may have used the artifact for occult practices. “There have been several hypotheses for it — some kind of a calendar, an instrument for land measurement, a scepter, etcetera — but none of them is satisfying,” Creemers told Live Science. “We rather think it has something to do with non-official activities like sorcery, fortune-telling, and so on.” However, no definitive explanation exists.

After he reported his finding to the Flanders Heritage Agency, Schuermans donated the object to the Gallo-Roman Museum of Tongeren, which will display the fragment in February next to a complete dodecahedron found in 1939.

Recently found fragment of a Roman dodecahedron (© Onroerend Erfgoed; photo by Kris Vandevorst)

The Flemish agency believes the whole dodecahedron could have been over two inches wide and was possibly broken during a ritual. But archaeologists are most enthusiastic about what the find means for research into Ancient Roman history. “Thanks to the correct working method of the metal detectorist, archaeologists know for the first time the exact location of a Roman dodecahedron in Flanders,” the agency wrote in a statement, adding that it plans to monitor the area where Schuermans uncovered the fragment in case of future discoveries.   

Dozens of theories published in academic journals speculate how Celts used dodecahedrons in the second to fourth centuries CE. English Heritage, which oversees over 400 historic sites in England, which houses one of the figures at the Corbridge Roman Museum, shares one popular but unlikely theory that knitters crafted gloves using the object’s holes to create the fingers. The Flanders Heritage Agency notes that dodecahedrons might have had more practical uses as agricultural tools or links to the occult.

Approximately 120 dodecahedrons have been found in modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Great Britain, which were all a part of the Celtic territory that the Romans conquered between 224 and 220 BCE

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Taylor Michael

Taylor Michael is a staff reporter at Hyperallergic. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School...

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1 Comment

  1. Given the wildly speculative nature of the opinions of “experts” as to the purpose of this ancient object, I would suggest that it was used by Roman farmers to determine the size, thus the value, of hens’ eggs!

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