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.

20 Surprising Facts About King Tutankhamun

The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

If you can only name one Egyptian pharaoh, it’s likely King Tut. Born around 1343 BCE, Tutankhamun made history as the youngest known monarch to preside over the ancient Egyptian empire. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. In life, King Tut made important political decisions; in death, he captivated the public’s fascination and ignited their interest in mummies.

The discovery of King Tut's pristine tomb in 1922 remains one of the most important moments in all of Egyptian archaeology. From his confusing lineage to his impact on pop culture, here’s what you need to know about King Tutankhamun.

1. King Tut’s parents were related.

Tutankhamun was likely inbred—something that wasn’t uncommon with royal families trying to maintain a “pure” bloodline throughout history. Around 2010, an analysis of DNA taken from the mummies of King Tut and his relatives revealed that the boy pharaoh’s parents had been brother and sister, but that discovery has since been disputed.

Tut’s father has been identified as the heretic Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother remains unknown. At least one archaeologist believes that Tut’s mother was actually Queen Nefertiti—Akhenaten's cousin, and one of his wives.

2. King Tut had an incestuous relationship of his own.

King Tut was married to a woman named Ankhesenamun, who was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. That made her Tutankhamun’s half-sister—or his full sister, if the theory about Nefertiti being his mother is true.

King Tut fathered two daughters with his wife, but unfortunately, both children were stillborn. Their bodies were mummified and eventually interred in King Tut’s tomb with him. Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun and possibly got married to the pharaoh Ay (Tut’s uncle) after Tut’s death.

3. King Tut became pharaoh at age 9.

As the grandson of the pharaoh Amenhotep II and the son of pharaoh Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun was destined for the throne. He assumed his position as Egypt’s leader at the young age of 9, and ruled until his death 10 years later around 1324 BCE. It is believed that King Tut is the youngest pharaoh ever to rule over the ancient Egyptian empire. Because he was so young when he came into power, his uncle Ay was likely in charge during those early years.

4. King Tut reversed his father’s religious reforms.

King Tut didn’t need to do much to impress his subjects—his father, pharaoh Akhenaten, had been a disastrous ruler. Akhenaten changed the established religion to focus on the worship of one god, the sun deity Aten, which left him branded as a heretic. Akhenaten also moved the holy capital from Thebes to Amarna.

When Tut became pharaoh he undid his father’s changes and declared Thebes to be the religious center once again. This helped him earn the trust of his people during his brief reign.

5. King Tut changed his name.

Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

King Tut went by many names during his lifetime. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which translates to “living image of Aten.” After he become pharaoh, he changed his name to Tutankhamun or “living image of Amun.” This change was a reflection of Tut’s devotion to the god Amun, whom his father had neglected in favor of the god Aten. Today, Tutankhamun is most commonly known as King Tut.

6. King Tut had health issues.

King Tut had a severe bone disease that left him disabled. He had a clubbed left foot, which made it hard for him to move around. In ancient art he is regularly depicted sitting down when engaging in physical activities like archery, whereas other pharaohs were always shown standing up in similar scenarios. It’s believed that Tut’s inbred lineage contributed to his physical issues. CT scans of his mummy showed that his left leg had been broken and infected, which may have contributed to his untimely death.

7. Experts used to suspect that King Tut had been assassinated.

King Tut’s mummy was discovered with a hole in its skull, leading some people to believe that the young pharaoh had been assassinated with a blow to the head. This theory has since been widely debunked by experts. It’s now suspected that the hole was either put there by embalmers when King Tut was being mummified or it was created when archaeologists first removed the mummy’s gold mask. It’s much more likely that the infection in his leg was the cause of his death.

8. A chariot accident may have contributed to King Tut’s death.

King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

If King Tut did indeed die from a broken leg, the question still remains of how he broke his leg in the first place. According to one theory, the teen king died in a horrible chariot accident, which is why one side of his body—including his leg—was found crushed. The chariots used by royalty in ancient Egypt were small and light, allowing them to reach high speeds. Although there’s no evidence that chariots were used for racing during this period, they were used during war and for hunting rides.

9. King Tut wasn’t history’s only young pharaoh.

King Tut was likely the youngest pharaoh to lead Egypt, but not my much. Cleopatra became co-regent with her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII in 51 BCE when he was just 10 years old. Looking beyond ancient Egypt, there are many young monarchs from history who shave years off Tut’s age record. China, Russia, England, Spain, and France are just a few countries that have crowned “rulers” when they were babies.

10. King Tut’s successors tried to erase him from history.

While King Tut did a lot to reverse his father’s unpopular reforms during his lifetime, none of it did much to protect Tut’s legacy in the long run. His successors did their best to remove his wife, Ankhesenamun, from history—and the memory of Tutankhamun along with her.

Tut was buried quickly and in a small tomb normally reserved for private citizens, not one of the grander tombs meant for pharaohs. Because his tomb was out of the way, it remained untouched for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1922. Now King Tut is the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all time.

11. King Tut's tomb was robbed—twice.

Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was visited by grave robbers. The first break-in took place shortly after Tutankhamun was laid to rest. Following that initial incident, there was rubble blocking the burial chambers, but it didn't take long for a second set of intruders to tunnel their way in. Carter found the tomb in shambles with entryways blocked off to provide further protection to Tutankhamun.

12. King Tut had three coffins.

Inside King Tut’s stone sarcophagus were three coffins: The outermost pair were made of gilded wood and the inner coffin was crafted out of solid gold. Over the head and shoulders of the mummy was the ornate gold death mask that many people associate with Tutankhamun. The mummy was placed inside the Russian nesting doll-style coffins, and everything was put inside a large quartzite stone sarcophagus with a pink granite top.

13. Some people think King Tut’s tomb is cursed.

King Tut’s tomb has inspired many legends since it was discovered decades ago. Because many people associated with the site have subsequently met with misfortune, stories have spread about its supposed curse. Some of the victims of this so-called curse include George Jay Gould, a financier who got sick after visiting the tomb in 1923, and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of blood poisoning after funding the dig. This so-called curse has been blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

14. King Tut was entombed with a meteorite dagger.

The tomb of Tutankhamun contained many extraordinary objects, one of which was a dagger carved from a meteorite. The dagger was found on the body of the mummy when he was discovered, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed that the materials came from space. The iron in the blade contained 10.8 percent nickel and .58 percent cobalt. Such a high nickel percentage indicated that the iron came from a meteorite, not Earth.

15. There are no hidden rooms in King Tut’s tomb.

Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

Even after it was excavated, King Tut’s tomb continued to capture the imaginations of archaeologists. In 2015, a British archaeologist put forth a theory based on laser scans that a second room was hidden behind a wall of the tomb and waiting to be explored. He even suggested that Tutankhamun’s stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, might be entombed there. That idea was put to rest when a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar survey showed there were no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to the tomb.

16. DIY repairs were made on King Tut’s burial mask.

After surviving 3000 years in a tomb in Egypt, King Tut’s iconic gold death mask was badly damaged when, around 2014, the mask’s braided beard broke off, and museum curators used epoxy glue to reattach it. This improvised solution may have ended up causing more lasting damage than the accident itself. Epoxy glue is hard to remove, and attempts to scrape off the adhesive resulted in permanent scratch marks on the artifact’s priceless gold face.

17. King Tut was buried with an ancient board game.

The ancient board game senet.
The ancient board game senet.
Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the world’s oldest board games was discovered inside King Tut’s tomb. Senet, or “passing,” had been played in Egypt for 1800 years prior to Tutankhamun’s death. It was played by people of all class levels, and though the exact rules have been lost to time, it’s believed to have something to do with life and death. It even may have been an early version of backgammon.

18. King Tut rocked pop culture.

When his tomb was discovered in the early 20th century, King Tut had a massive impact on pop culture. The Egyptian aesthetic infiltrated the 1920s, appearing in fashion, home design, and architecture. Americans especially were so fascinated by King Tut that president Herbert Hoover even went so far as to name his dog after the young monarch. Tut’s impact was felt for decades after his discovery. The historical figure has been depicted countless times in movies, songs, and television shows.

19. King Tut’s tomb recently received a makeover.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
Harry Burton/Apic/Getty Images

After years of traffic from tourists, King Tut’s tomb closed to visitors in 2009 to undergo a long conservation project. At the beginning of 2019, the archaeological site finally reopened to the public. Today, the attraction features an air filtration and ventilation system, restored wall paintings, a viewing platform, and new barriers to protect precious artifacts from viewers. King Tut’s tomb is one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting Egypt.

20. We may finally know what King Tut really looked like.

By conducting a virtual autopsy of his mummy with CT scan data, scientists were able to build a 3D model of what King Tut may have looked like when he was alive 3000 years ago. The computer-generated image looks much different than the striking face depicted on Tut’s iconic gold mask. Rather than the god-like figure that’s been shown countless times in pop culture, Tutankhamun was a frail, ordinary teenager in reality.

7 Historic European Castles Virtually Rebuilt Before Your Very Eyes

A reconstruction of Spiš Castle in eastern Slovakia.
A reconstruction of Spiš Castle in eastern Slovakia.
Budget Direct

While some centuries-old castles are still standing tall, others haven’t withstood the ravages of time, war, or natural disaster quite as well. To give you an idea of what once was, Australia-based insurance company Budget Direct has digitally reconstructed seven of them for its blog, Simply Savvy.

Watch below as ruins across Europe transform back into the formidable forts and turreted castles they used to be, courtesy of a little modern-day magic we call GIF technology.

1. Samobor Castle // Samobor, Croatia

samobor castle
Samobor Castle in Samobor, Croatia
Budget Direct

The only remaining piece of the 13th-century castle built by Bohemia’s King Ottokar II is the base of the guard tower—the rest of the ruins are from an expansion that happened about 300 years later. It’s just a 10-minute walk from the Croatian city of Samobor, which bought the property in 1902.

2. Château Gaillard // Les Andelys, France

Château Gaillard in Les Andelys, France
Château Gaillard in Les Andelys, France
Budget Direct

King Richard I of England built Château Gaillard in just two years during the late 12th century as a fortress to protect the Duchy of Normandy, which belonged to England at the time, from French invasion. It didn’t last very long—France’s King Philip II captured it six years later.

3. Dunnottar Castle // Stonehaven, Scotland

Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven, Scotland
Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven, Scotland
Budget Direct

Dunnottar Castle overlooks the North Sea and is perhaps best known as the fortress that William Wallace (portrayed by Mel Gibson in 1995’s Braveheart) and Scottish forces won back from English occupation in 1297. Later, it became the place where the Scottish monarchy stored their crown jewels, which were smuggled to safety when Oliver Cromwell invaded during the 17th century.

4. Menlo Castle // Galway City, Ireland

Menlo Castle in Galway City, Ireland
Menlo Castle in Galway City, Ireland
Budget Direct

This ivy-covered Irish castle was built during the 16th century and all but destroyed in a fire in 1910. For those few centuries, it was home to the Blake family, English nobles who owned property all over the region.

5. Olsztyn Castle // Olsztyn, Poland

Olsztyn Castle in Olsztyn, Poland
Olsztyn Castle in Olsztyn, Poland
Budget Direct

The earliest known mention of Olsztyn Castle was in 1306, so we know it was constructed some time before then and expanded later that century by King Casimir III of Poland. It was severely damaged during wars with Sweden in the 17th and 18th centuries, but its highest tower—once a prison—still stands.

6. Spiš Castle // Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia

Spiš Castle in Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia
Spiš Castle in Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia
Budget Direct

Slovakia’s massive Spiš Castle was built in the 12th century to mark the boundary of the Hungarian kingdom and fell to ruin after a fire in 1780. However, 20th-century restoration efforts helped fortify the remaining rooms, and it was even used as a filming location for parts of 1996’s DragonHeart.

7. Poenari Castle // Valachia, Romania

Poenari Castle in Valachia, Romania
Poenari Castle in Valachia, Romania
Budget Direct

This 13th-century Romanian castle boasts one previous resident of some celebrity: Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula, who may have been an early influence for Bram Stoker’s vampire, Dracula. It also boasts a staggering 1480 stone steps, which you can still climb today.

[h/t Simply Savvy]

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