Long before Dungeons and Dragons, Kerplunk, or Risk, the ancient inhabitants of the Middle East used the astragali – or knuckle bones – of cattle to make dice for retro board games. Describing the discovery of 532 astragali in an underground cave complex in southern Israel dating back over 2,000 years, the authors of a new study reveal how these instruments of chance shaped the lives of the region’s inhabitants, who relied upon them for recreation, gambling, and occult activities.
Though referred to as a knuckle bone, an astragalus is in fact an anklebone. Because the astragali of sheep, goats, and other medium-sized mammals have six asymmetric concave and convex sides, they lend themselves perfectly to be used as dice.
While excavating the caves beneath the ancient city of Maresha – which prospered during the Hellenistic period around 2,300 years ago – archaeologists found a staggering array of astragali, many of which had been shaved down, perforated, or filled with lead to enhance their various functions.
Describing their discovery in the journal Levant, the study authors reveal how the astragali found beneath one section of the city reflect “a variety of games that were part of the daily life of the inhabitants living in and around this area.” Many of the dice unearthed in this segment contained inscriptions related to gaming, including some bearing the name of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.
Others featured game-related phrases and commands such as “stop!”, “snatch away” or “you are burnt.” Some astragali were engraved with ‘Aphrodite’, ‘Eros’, and ‘Hera’, the gods of love, sex, and marriage respectively. According to the authors, these dice may have been cast in order to solicit luck in love.
The dice found in another cave, meanwhile, were deposited alongside divination texts and other “cultic material,” including a series of chalk phalluses. According to the researchers, “the scarcity of inscriptions that are specifically useful in games may further imply that many of the astragali from this subterranean complex were not simply played with, but were chosen for the purpose of cult.”
“It is of interest that these knuckle bones are often found next to ostraca (pottery sherds with writing inscribed or written in ink), which bore Aramaic texts, such as, ‘Magical incantation’, or ‘If you do so, this will happen to you., which demonstrates their cultic role,” explained study author Dr Lee Perry-Gal in a statement.
Sounds a bit like Jumanji, if you ask us.
“The assemblage shows that in ancient times of distress, as today, people sought help from external factors, in magic and spells, and in the world of the unknown,” said Perry-Gal.
“In addition, we know that astragali were used for games. It is noteworthy that we have examples of children buried with similar gaming dice. The cubes, which were a popular gaming activity, had a role in accompanying children to the next world, to be used there.”
Summing up their findings and the importance of these knuckle-bone dice in Hellenic life, the authors conclude that “astragali were used at Maresha by different classes of people and for different purposes: children’s games, adults’ games, gambling, and divination.”