The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
Brian Campbell

One August day in 1987, Brian Campbell was refilling the hole left by a tree stump in his yard in Romford, East London, when his shovel struck something metal. He leaned down and pulled the object from the soil, wondering at its strange shape. The object was small—smaller than a tennis ball—and caked with heavy clay. “My first impressions," Campbell tells Mental Floss, "were it was beautifully and skillfully made … probably by a blacksmith as a measuring tool of sorts.”

Campbell placed the artifact on his kitchen windowsill, where it sat for the next 10 or so years. Then, he visited the Roman fort and archaeological park in Saalburg, Germany—and there, in a glass display case, was an almost identical object. He realized that his garden surprise was a Roman dodecahedron: a 12-sided metal mystery that has baffled archaeologists for centuries. Although dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of explanations have been offered to account for the dodecahedrons, no one is certain just what they were used for.

AN ANCIENT PUZZLE

A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
Rüdiger Schwartz/Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park

The first Roman dodecahedron to intrigue archaeologists was found almost 300 years ago, buried in a field in the English countryside along with some ancient coins. "A piece of mixed metal, or ancient brass, consisting of 12 equal sides," read the description of the egg-sized object when it was presented to the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1739. The 12 faces had "an equal number of perforations within them, all of unequal diameters, but opposite to one another … every faceing had a knobb or little ball fixed to it." The antiquarians were flummoxed by the finely crafted metal shell, and what its purpose may have been.

The 1739 dodecahedron was far from the last discovery of its kind. More than 100 similar objects have since been found at dozens of sites across northern Europe dating to around the 1st to 5th centuries CE. Ranging in size from about a golf ball to a bit larger than a baseball, each one has 12 equally sized faces, and each face has a hole of varying diameter. The objects themselves are all hollow.

By the mid-19th century, as more were found, the objects became known to archaeologists as dodecahedrons, from the Greek for “12 faces.” They're on display today in dozens of museums and archaeological collections throughout Europe, although given how little is known about them, their explanatory labels tend to be brief.

What's more, they have no paper trail. Historians have found no written documentation of the dodecahedrons in any historical sources. That void has encouraged dozens of competing, and sometimes colorful, theories about their purpose, from military banner ornaments to candleholders to props used in magic spells. The obvious craftsmanship that went into them—at a time when metal objects were expensive and difficult to make—has prompted many researchers to argue they were valuable, an idea that's supported by the fact that several have been found stashed away with Roman-era coins. But that still doesn't explain why they were made.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS?

A Roman cavalry charge, a relief from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
A Roman cavalry charge, from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, some antiquarians favored the theory that the dodecahedrons were a type of weapon—perhaps the head of a mace (a type of club with a heavy head), or a metal bullet for a hand-held sling. But as other scholars later pointed out, even the largest of the dodecahedrons are too light to inflict much damage. Moreover, Roman soldiers usually fired solid lead balls from their slings—nothing that looked like the intricate, and hollow, dodecahedrons.

Yet weapons aren't the only items useful in a war. Amelia Sparavigna, a physicist at Italy’s Politecnico di Torino, thinks the dodecahedrons were used by the Roman military as a type of rangefinder. In research published on the online repository arXiv in 2012, Sparavigna argued that they could have been used to calculate the distance to an object of known size (such as a military banner or an artillery weapon) by looking through pairs of the dodecahedrons' differently sized holes, until the object and the edges of the two circles in the dodecahedron aligned. Theoretically, only one set of holes for a given distance would line up, according to Sparavigna.

The theory is strengthened by the fact that several of the dodecahedrons have been found at Roman military sites. Sparavigna tells Mental Floss that “the small little studs [on the outside allow for] a good grip of the object. So an expert soldier could use it in any condition,” while the many pairs of holes allowed them to quickly select between a variety of ranges. “The Roman army needed a rangefinder, and the dodecahedron can be used as a rangefinder,” she explains.

But many modern scholars disagree. Historian Tibor Grüll of the University of Pécs in Hungary, who reviewed the academic literature about the dodecahedrons in 2016, points out that no two Roman dodecahedrons are the same size, and none have any numerals or letters engraved on them—markings you might expect on a mathematical instrument. “In my opinion, the practical function of this object can be excluded because ... none of the items have any inscriptions or signs on [them],” Grüll tells Mental Floss.

He points to the distribution of the objects as an important clue. They have been found across a northwestern swath of the former Roman Empire from Hungary to northern England, but not in other Roman territories such as Italy, Spain, North Africa, or the Middle East. That lack works against the idea that the objects were military devices. "If it was a tool for ranging artillery," Grull says, "why does it not appear all over the empire in a military context?"

GUESSING GAMES

Perhaps the dodecahedrons were used for play, not war. Some scholars have suggested they may have been part of a child’s toy, like the French cup-and-ball game known as bilboquet, which dates from the Middle Ages. Their shape also invites comparisons to the dice used for gambling, a common pastime in the Roman era. But most Roman dice were six-sided, smaller, and carved from solid wood, stone, or ivory. Plus, the differently sized holes on each face of the dodecahedrons makes them useless as dice: One side is always heavier than the other, so they always fall the same way.

Many scholars have suggested that the items had a special cultural significance, and perhaps even a religious function, for the peoples in the formerly Gallic regions of northern Europe. The 1939 discovery of a well-preserved bronze dodecahedron in Krefeld, near Germany’s border with the Netherlands, lends credence to this idea. The object was found in the 4th-century CE grave of a wealthy woman, along with the remains of a bone staff. According to an essay from the Gallo-Roman Museum at Tongeren in Belgium, the dodecahedron was likely mounted on the staff like a kind of scepter head, and "probably ascribed with magical powers, bestowing religious power and prestige on its owner."

Or perhaps they had a different kind of cultural significance. Divination or fortune-telling was popular throughout the Roman empire, and the 12 sides of the dodecahedrons could suggest a link to the astrological zodiac. Others have suggested a link to Plato, who said that the dodecahedron was the shape “used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.” (It's not quite clear exactly what Plato was talking about.)

Rüdiger Schwarz, an archaeologist at the Saalburg Roman Archaeological Park near Frankfurt in Germany—where Campbell first identified the curious object he'd found—explains that any discussion of the cultural significance of the objects is purely speculative. “We have no sources from antiquity which give an explanation of the function or the meaning of these objects,” Schwarz says. “Any of these theories may be true, but can neither be proved right or wrong.”

Schwarz points to another theory: The dodecahedrons may have been a type of “masterpiece” to show off a craftsman's metalworking abilities. This might be why they rarely show any signs of wear. “In this respect, the technical function of the dodecahedron is not the crucial point. It is the quality and accuracy of the work piece that is astonishing,” he tells Mental Floss. “One could imagine that a Roman bronze caster had to show his ability by manufacturing a dodecahedron in order to achieve a certain status.”

SOLDIERS IN THE BACKYARD

Of course, the internet loves an ancient mystery, and ideas about the purpose of the Roman dodecahedrons have flourished there. The work of Dutch researcher G.M.C. Wagemans, detailed at romandodecahedron.com, proposes that the objects were astronomical instruments used to calculate agriculturally important dates in the spring and fall by measuring the angle of sunlight through the different pairs of holes. Other internet researchers, perhaps less seriously, have used 3D-printed models of the Roman dodecahedrons for knitting experiments, and suggested that the true purpose of the objects was to create differently sized fingers for Roman woolen gloves.

Campbell has taken his artifact to several museums in London, but beyond confirming what it is, they could provide no further clues about its particular origin or purpose. "Many [is] the time I have handled it wondering as to its exact use," he says.

While Campbell has no clear idea what the Romans were doing with the dodecahedron—which he now keeps in a display cabinet in his house—he does propose how it might have come to be in his garden: by being left behind by soldiers traveling between London and the early Roman provincial capital of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex. Romford was at that time a river crossing and the probable site of a fortified posting station used by Roman troops for changing horses and resting in safety.

“Two thousand years ago, I believe this area was forested and the River Rom's flood plain was much wider than today,” Campbell says. “I often form a picture in my head of 100 or so Roman soldiers in full uniform bedding down in the area, now the bottom of my garden.”

Roman dodecahedrons are still being found today. Recent examples have been unearthed by metal-detectorists in the north of England, and by archaeologists excavating a late-Roman rubbish pit in the north of France [PDF]. It's likely more will be found in the future.

But unless someone also finds an instruction manual—and after more than 1500 years, that seems doubtful—the Roman dodecahedrons will continue to baffle, and fascinate, for many years to come.

An Ancient Shipwreck Has Been Turned Into an Underwater Museum Off the Coast of Greece

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

If you love ancient history and eerie, abandoned places, it might be time to break out the scuba diving gear and book a flight to Greece. As AFAR reports, the site of an ancient shipwreck near Alonissos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, has been turned into an underwater museum.

While underwater museums exist in Florida, Mexico, and Europe, those destinations are geared more toward art and sculpture lovers. In this case, divers will be swimming alongside a piece of history dating back to the late 5th century B.C.E. The wooden cargo ship, which sank for an unknown reason, disintegrated long ago. However, the seabed is still covered in thousands of amphoras (a kind of storage jar used in ancient Greece and Italy), which likely held wine.

Dubbed the Peristera shipwreck, the site was discovered in the early 1990s. It was named after the uninhabited island where it was discovered, but guided dives of the site leave from the harbor of Steni Valla on Alonissos, which is located in the Northern Sporades group of islands in the northwest Aegean Sea.

Peristera is the first shipwreck in Greece to be made accessible to the public, but it won’t be the last. As part of a program funded by the European Commission, the country also plans to open up three other shipwreck sites in the Pagasetic Gulf. The efforts are part of a push to promote eco-friendly tourism while also highlighting the country’s rich history.

“The goal is in the next two years to make the country’s shipwrecks visitable, but also to provide important information and raise awareness about underwater monuments, such as the Peristera wreck off Alonissos,” alternate culture minister Kostas Stratis said at an event, according to the Greek City Times.

Italy and Croatia are also expected to create their own underwater museums in the future via the same program, called BlueMed.

[h/t AFAR]

Unraveling the History of Human Hair

iStock/ValuaVitaly
iStock/ValuaVitaly

Be it brown or blond, in a straight or naturally curly hair style, the hair that grows from our heads is a fundamental aspect of the human appearance. Our multitude of hair types is so ubiquitous that it’s actually easy to ignore how weird hair is—and not in the sense that your hair style might be on the wrong side of edgy.

“When it comes to human uniqueness, people come up with all kinds of stuff—culture, intelligence, language,” Tina Lasisi, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Penn State University, tells Mental Floss. “[But] we’re the only mammals that have hairless bodies and hairy scalps.”

On the surface, our hair types are simple enough. Like fingernails, hair is made mostly of the protein keratin. It can survive for millennia under the right conditions—think Ötzi, the 5300-year-old iceman whose clothing, body, and hair were all preserved when he was frozen in a glacier. In warmer, wetter, more acidic environments, hair can degrade within weeks.

But that’s only what hair is. Why we have different hair types and how they came to be is a mystery that scientists are just now beginning to untangle.

Why Do We Have Hair on Our Heads?

Mother holding child with a braided hairstyle
iStock/Kali9

Some researchers have tried on various hypotheses to explain the patterns of hair growth in Homo sapiens and why they differ so dramatically from our close relatives, like chimpanzees. Losing body hair meant we could sweat more, a cooling mechanism that “helped to make possible the dramatic enlargement of our most temperature-sensitive organ, the brain,” writes anthropologist Nina Jablonski in Scientific American. Other researchers hypothesized that the hair remaining on human heads helped hominins regulate body temperature when they became bipedal and started traveling long distances. Basically, scalp hair created a kind of built-in hat.

Hair doesn’t usually stick around for hundreds of thousands of years the way fossilized bones do. If scientists want to answer the question of how our hair evolved from full-body fur, they have to explore the human genome—and Lasisi found that surprisingly few have done so. That’s partially because of the time and expense of conducting genomic analysis to pinpoint which genes affect the production of hair. But it’s also because it wasn’t a question posed by earlier (male) scientists, according to Lasisi.

“They were like, ‘Oh yeah, hair, it’s sexy on women, it’s probably sexual selection.’ But there was no effort to look into it as a unique human trait because they were more interested in our large brains, bipedalism, and whatnot,” Lasisi says.

How Did Different Hair Types Come To Be?

Blond woman facing forsythia bush
iStock/lprogressman

Even the lack of categorization for hair types is telling. Contrary to what your shampoo bottle may say, there is no real classification system for different hair types. At least not yet.

“Most mammals have straight hair. Only human hair [in African and Melanesian populations] has this tightly coiled configuration. We tend to talk about hair as straight, wavy, curly, in some cases frizzy,” Lasisi says. “But it’s as if we were trying to do genetic studies on height saying, there are short people, medium people, and tall people, now find what genes are related to that.”

In other words, before she could even attempt to answer the question of which genes control the texture and color of hair, Lasisi had to figure out a system for defining those hair textures and colors. Lasisi set about creating a classification system that she eventually hopes to publish, which relies on microscopic analysis of curl radius and measuring precise amounts of melanin in the hair. She then tried to answer the first of many questions: Whether tightly coiled African hair evolved in response to the hot environment. While that research is still ongoing, she says the results may indicate something counterintuitive—the thicker the hair, the better insulator it is from heat.

What's the oldest human hair ever found?

Woman wearing African jewelry viewed from the back
iStock/FernandoPodolski

On the rare occasions when hair is preserved in the fossil record, it can be an incredible source of information about our ancestors’ health and behavior. In 2009, Lucinda Backwell and colleagues described the discovery of what appeared to be human hair in fossilized hyena poop (a.k.a. coprolites) from more than 200,000 years ago—the oldest evidence of human hair to date. Five years later, Backwell and others followed that study with an examination of 48 hairs from hyena coprolites that identified several mammalian species. The presence of all those types of hair mean the hyenas were scavenging from many different remains, including humans.

“In the case of the human hairs in the coprolite, they told us a lot, because there were no bones,” Backwell, an anthropologist with the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and Instituto Superior des Estudios Sociales, CONICET in Argentina, tells Mental Floss by email. They revealed that humans shared the environment with big herbivores like impala, zebra, kudu, and warthogs in southern Africa 200,000 years ago. Unfortunately for scientists, all of the keratin in that hair sample had been replaced by calcium carbonate that didn’t include any DNA. “The first prize would be to extract DNA and identify whether the hair belonged to a modern or archaic human, or even someone like Homo naledi, with its primitive features and young age,” Backwell said. In addition to helping identify the precise species of hominin, DNA from a hair sample like this could go a long way in telling more about different species’ relationship to one another.

Backwell has also studied human hair found in a high-altitude cave site in Argentina, one of the best environments for preserving hair because it’s “cool, dry, dark, and with a neutral pH,” she says. Like the coprolite hairs in South Africa, dating and identifying hairs in Argentina will help Backwell and others understand the spread of humans across the world.

How Can Hair Shed Light on History?

Woman with brown wavy hair facing the ocean
iStock/lprogressman

When people are exposed to substances in the environment, their hair will retain some of the chemical signatures of those substances. Hair found in ice, in amber, and on mummies from arid regions around the world has allowed researchers to learn fascinating details about the inhabitants of particular regions.

In 2013, archaeologists at the University of Chile analyzed 56 mummy samples found in northern Chile. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (a tool that identifies different substances in a sample—and also happens to be used for drug testing), they found that people had smoked nicotine-containing plants continuously from 100 BCE to 1450 CE. “Overall, these results suggest that consumption of nicotine was performed by members of the society at large, irrespective of their social and wealth status,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Another group of archaeologists collected hair samples from 40 mummies found in Peru, Chile, and Egypt to analyze pre-industrial mercury concentrations across the world, ranging in time from 5000 BCE to 1300 CE [PDF]. Their results, published in 2018, indicated much lower levels of mercury in the environment than in the industrial era. Researchers also discovered that each group’s diet determined the actual level of mercury exposure—the Chilean mummies had higher concentrations from their seafood-based diet, while the Egyptians, who ate land animals, had the lowest.

For now, the mystery of hair’s evolution remains partially unsolved. But the next time you’re at the salon, look in the mirror and remember: Hair is part of what makes us human.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER