Rollin’ Bones: The History of Dice

The following is reprinted from the book Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader.

The next time you find yourself rolling a pair of dice, know that you’re tapping into something primordial- keeping alive an ancient tradition that began long before recorded history.

DEM BONES

(Image credit: Vassil)

Archaeologists can’t pinpoint the first human who threw dice, but they do know this: Unlike many customs that started in one place and then spread, dice-throwing appeared independently all across the populated world. The oldest known dice -dating back at least 8,000 years- consisted of found objects such as fruit pits, pebbles, and seashells. But the direct precursors of today’s dice were bone: the ankle bones of hoofed animals, such as sheep and oxen. These bones -later called astragali by the  Greeks- were chosen because they are roughly cube-shaped, with two rounded sides that couldn’t be landed on, and four flat ones that could. Which side would be facing up after a toss, or a series of tosses, was as much a gamble to our ancestors as it is to us today.

The first dice throwers weren’t gamers, though -they were religious shamans who used astragali (as well as sticks, rocks, or even animal entrails) for divination, the practice of telling the future by interpreting signs from the gods. How did these early dice make their way from the shaman to the layman? According to David Schwartz in Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling:

The line between divination and gambling is blurred. One hunter, for example, might say to another, “If the bones land short side up, we will search for game to the south; if not, we look north,” thus using the astragali to plumb the future. But after the hunt, the hunters might cast bones to determine who would go home with the most desirable cuts.

SQUARING OFF

And with that, gambling -and dice gaming- was born, leading to the next big step in dice evolution. Around 7,000 years ago, ancient Mesopotamians carved down the rounded sides of the astragali to make them even more cube-like. Now they could land on one of six sides, allowing the outcome to become more complex. As their technology advanced, materials such as ivory, wood, and whalebone were used to make dice. (Image credit: Swiss Museum of Games)

It is believed that the shamans were the first ones to make marks on the sides of the dice, but it didn’t take long for them to roll into the rest of society. Dice first appeared in board games in Ur, a city in southern Mesopotamia. Now referred to as the “Royal Game of Ur,” this early version of backgammon (circa 3,000 BC) used four-sided, pyramidal dice.

However, the most common dice, then and now, are six-sided cubic hexahedrons with little dots, or pips, to denote their values. The pip pattern still in use today -one opposite six, two opposite five, and three opposite four- first appeared in Mesopotamia circa 1300 BC, centuries before the introduction of Arabic numerals.

WHEN IN ROME



In the first millennium BC, civilizations thrived in Greece, India, and China- and they all threw dice.  In Rome, it was common for gamblers to call out the goddess Fortuna’s name while rolling a 20-sided die during a game of chance. But they had to do it quietly -dice games were illegal in Rome (except during the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia). Not that that stopped anyone from playing it: One surviving fresco depicts two quarreling dicers being thrown out of a public house by the proprietor.

* When General Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River to attack Rome in 49 BC -which set in motion his rise to power- he knew that there was no turning back, proclaiming, ”Lea iacta est.” Translation: “The die is cast.”

* Later Roman leaders were also dice aficionados, including Mark Antony, Caligula (he was notorious for cheating), Claudius, Nero, and Commodus, who built special dicing rooms in his palace.

ROLLING ALONG



After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of civilization’s advancements and inventions fell out of use. Not dice, though- their use continued through the Middle Ages, being one of the few leisure activities affordable to peasants. In the rest of the world, dice played an important role among the tribes and indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, for both recreation and divination. And in 12th-century China, a variation of a dice game led to the introduction of dominoes, which are basically flattened-out dice.

But it was in Medieval Europe that the popularity of dice game soared, starting in the 1100s with a game called Hazard that was played by both aristocrats and commoners. “They dance and play at dice both day and night,” wrote Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. These games were so popular that over the ensuing centuries dice guilds and schools formed all over western Europe. That didn’t stop the Catholic Church from attempting to ban all gambling games, though. Over the next few hundred years, dozens of popes, bishops, and priests instituted bans against dicing games. And just like in ancient Rome, the bans didn’t stop people from playing them.

(Image credit: Jack ma)

A CRAPPY ORIGIN

It was inevitable then, that dice traveled aboard the ships emigrating to the New World (the religious Pilgrims on the Mayflower were none too fond of the crew’s gambling games). In colonial America, the game of Hazard was introduce by the French in New Orleans, who called it crapaud, meaning “toad.” The game became popular with slaves, who shortened the name to craps, which is still the most popular gambling dice game in the the United States. And in the early 20th century, board games like Monopoly became popular, guaranteeing that nearly every American home would have at least one set of dice.




PAIR OF DICE LOST

Where there is gaming, there is cheating. While ancient civilizations may have believed the gods were responsible for the outcome of the roll, many unscrupulous players felt the need to give the gods a little help. Loaded dice -as well as dice with the corners shaved off- were found in the ruins of Pompeii. When wooden dice were common, enterprising gamblers would grow small trees around pebbles; then they’d carve the dice with the weight inside, leaving no visible marks.

Modern cheaters are just as crafty in their methods. One type of trick dice are trappers: Drops of mercury are loaded into a center reservoir; by holding the die a certain way and tapping it against a table, the mercury travels down a tunnel to another reservoir, subtly weighting the die. Another trick is to fill a die with wax that melts at just below body temperature: Held in a closed fist, the wax melts, settling to the desired side.

Today casinos spend millions trying to thwart cheaters in a high tech war of wits using extremely sensitive equipment to detect even the slightest alteration in a pair of suspect dice. And to keep people from bringing their own dice to the craps table, all casino dice have tiny serial numbers. A more radical way of stoping cheaters: virtual dice rolled by a computer. This not only makes loading dice impossible, but also allows craps players to “roll the bones” from the keypad of a cell phone. But nothing can replace the actual feeling of shaking the dice in your hands and letting them fly.

DICEY VARIATIONS

(Image credit: Zocchihedron Man)

Dice made from the ankles of sheep are still used in Mongolia today. And they’re just one type of thousands that exist. Have you ever rolled a 30-sided die -the highest number symmetrical polyhedron? Or how about the 100-sided die, called the Zocchihedron (invented in the 1980s by a gamer named Lou Zocchi)? There’s also the no-sided die -a sphere with a moving internal weight that causes the sphere to stop rolling with one of its six numbers facing up. There are barrel dice (roughly cylindrical, with flat surfaces), letter dice (like in the game Boggle), playing card dice (often called “poker dice”), six-siders numbered zero through five, three-sided dice, doubling cubes (such as those used in backgammon), asymmetrical polyhedrons, and countless others.

And those are just the varieties used in gaming. Myriad other dice are used in cleromancy, the ancient practice of divining with dice. Tibetan Buddhists use a set of three dice made from conch shells to help make daily decisions. Astrologers use a set of 12-sided dice relating to the Zodiac signs. There are I Ching dice with trigrams and yin/yang symbols. And if you’ve ever shaken a Magic 8-Ball and asked it a question, you’ve practiced cleromancy: The responses -“Yes,” “No,” “Ask again,” “Later, “ etc.- are printed on a 20-sided icosahedron.

(Image credit: Moroboshi)

Though rarely used in games since the Roman Empire, noncubical dice have made a resurgence in the past few decades. They were used for teaching arithmetic before they took hold of the world of gaming by storm, most notably in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

____________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader. The Bathroom Readers' Institute has sailed the seas of science, history, pop culture, humor, and more to bring you Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader. Our all-new 21st edition is overflowing with over 500 pages of material that is sure to keep you fully absorbed.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute has published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute.


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