History of Gaming: Dice

History of Gaming: Dice

By: Terra Clarke Olsen

Gaming is a natural human pursuit. It fulfills our innate desire to outwit our foes and rewards us with the same victorious feeling of yore. More importantly, though, through gaming we challenge ourselves and improve our cognitive development. So it is both understandable and astounding that as early as 3000 BCE people were playing games like checkers. People often think of the ancient past as ‘primitive,’ and many automatically believe themselves to be superior by comparison. But when one looks at the depth and creativity of early games and game pieces, it is mind blowing to learn how little has changed. Today, I want to take you on a brief history of the die. Hopefully you’ll learn something new and develop a deeper appreciation of past gamers.

Knuckelbone dice made from sheep bone. Found in Pakistan (via The British Museum)

Knuckelbone dice made from sheep bone. Found in Pakistan (via The British Museum)

Dice have been around for a long time (maybe even as old as 5,000 years). Throughout history, they are referenced in numerous plays, laws, literature, and art. Although their precise origin is unknown, archeologists have continued to find examples of ancient dice and dice games all over the world, including Egypt, China, Italy, and Mexico. In the past, dice were made of bones (often from the knuckle of animals, and where the term ‘shake[roll] them bones’ originates), ivory, stone, precious metal, and even glass. Dice could be made quite elaborately as well, as displayed in the Roman figurine dice below. And they were not only six sides. Multiple kinds of different sided dice have been discovered, including D20s! But no matter how ornate the die, they all served the same function as a gaming tool.

Roman rock crystal D20 from the 1st or 2nd century (via The British Museum)

Roman rock crystal D20 from the 1st or 2nd century (via The British Museum)

Roman bronze figurine dice from 1st or 2nd Century (via The British Museum)

Roman bronze figurine dice from 1st or 2nd Century (via The British Museum)

Dice being a game of chance, they have been used for gambling throughout history and all over the world. The Romans believed that Fortuna, the goddess of luck, controlled the outcome of dice. Consequently, this is where we get the term ‘Lady Luck.’ The connection between gambling and fate is seen elsewhere in literature and sentiments in ancient times.  The ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, wrote in Phaedra, “The dice of Zeus fall ever luckily.”[1] But by the medieval times, people learned how to disrupt ‘Lady Luck’ by creating loaded dice. Archeologists have discovered mercury weights in dice from the Middle Ages, known as ‘Fulhams.’[2] This might have contributed to the negative connotation that dice games (i.e. gambling) gained in the Middle Ages. In later Medieval England, statues were written time and time again in an effort to discourage men from playing ‘unlawful’ games.[3] But as we know, dice and gambling have continued to be popular all over the world.

Gambling depicted in a Medieval  illumination (via Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley, 264, f.64r)

Gambling depicted in a Medieval illumination (via Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley, 264, f.64r)

In addition to interesting dice, archeologists have discovered board games and vessels made especially for dice. There are some really interesting examples of different dice games around the world. Like this board game, for example:

Neo-Assyrian board game dating from 680BC-669BC (via The British Museum)

Neo-Assyrian board game dating from 680BC-669BC (via The British Museum)

“Large fragment from a stone gaming board of red mottled marble, the track for the pieces being indicated by holes, some marked with rosettes….sometimes called ‘Game of 58 Holes’, a race game for two players, played with stick pieces which moved round the track at the throw of a dice…”[4]

Nowadays dice are used for innumerable games, and you can get them in all types of forms and even in precious metals. But they still have the same purpose they did 3,000 years ago: Entertainment!

So go roll them bones!

terra@haveyounerd.com


[1] Sophocles, Phædra, Fragment 809. Fragment 809. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Antigone#Antigone

[2] “Board Games- The Roll of Knucklebones and Dice Throughout History,” Hull Museums Collection. http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museumcollections/collections/storydetail.php?irn=779

[3] Karen Jones, Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460-1560 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006) 188.

[4] Description Text, “Game-Board,” The British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectId=282815&partId=1

Other Sources:

“Board Games- The Roll of Knucklebones and Dice Throughout History,” Hull Museums Collection. http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museumcollections/collections/storydetail.php?irn=779

The British Museum,  http://www.britishmuseum.org

Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Bodley, 264, f.64r, via http://image.ox.ac.uk/

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