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

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art / Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.