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Show & Tell: Was This 20-Sided Die Used for Ancient Gaming?

The 20-sided die you see above could have been built by ancient Egyptian Dungeons & Dragons players, but it wasn’t. Rather, it was made by an unknown craftsperson at some point between the second century B.C.E. and fourth century C.E.—a relic from an age when casting the dice often had higher stakes than hit points.

Made in the shape of an icosahedron (a polyhedron with 20 faces), the die is constructed out of serpentine, which ancient Egyptians often used for their amulets and vessels. The die could have been made during Egypt's Macedonian period, during which it was a major center of Greek trade and culture, or during its later time as a Roman province, when Egypt kept its strong trade ties with Greece. That would explain the Greek letters carved into the faces of the die. 

Historians aren’t entirely sure why such dice exist, but it’s thought they were sometimes used for divination. The die could even be an example of an alphabet oracle—a text-based divination tool that could stand in for a flesh-and-blood oracle or seer when needed.

In an alphabet oracle, each letter of the Greek alphabet had a corresponding phrase that you could use to determine your fortune. One such alphabet oracle was found on an inscription discovered in the ancient city of Olympos. Although it’s thought that shards of pottery were used with that oracle, the process is just as doable with dice. Roll the Greek letter lambda, for example, and the oracle would tell you that “the one passing on the left bodes well for everything.” A zeta told you to “flee the very great storm, lest you be disabled in some way.”

Unfortunately, the die you see here didn’t come with a corresponding guidebook, so it’s impossible to know if it was associated with an oracle or not. Another possibility is that such dice were used for games. Ancient Egyptians are known to have used dice for senet, a popular board game thought to have been kind of like backgammon. The game has been found in the tombs of Egyptian royalty, and gameplay has been linked to the mythological Egyptian journey through the underworld.

The 20-sided die is far from the first of its kind, of course. Dice are thought to date back millennia, and the oldest known example was associated with a 3000-year-old board game of the ancient Near East called the Royal Game of Ur.

These days, 20-sided dice are most familiar to role-playing gamers. As games historian Jon Peterson writes, 20-sided dice became commercially available around the early 1970s—right when table gamers were beginning to recognize the need for dice that would allow for more outcomes and make games more realistic. Among those gamers was Gary Gygax, who ended up creating Dungeons & Dragons with Dave Arneson in 1974.

Ancient fortune-telling tool or remnant of a centuries-old D&D predecessor? You can visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and speculate for yourself—the die is on display in Gallery 138.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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