Archaeologists Found 600 Bone Dice Used in Games and Rituals

Archaeologists in Israel found over 600 knuckle bones, called astragali. They determined they functioned like dice in everything from children’s games to gambling and divination. Each can land on four of their six uneven sides. making them perfect for games of chance. Some have phrases like “Robber,” “Stop,” and “You are burnt” carved into them. Which certainly sounds like part of a game quite similar to some we still play today.

Two hands holding multiple small joint bones used as dice
Israel Antiquities Authority Official Channel

Scientists have found astragali in sites thousands of years old. But they are also still used in some cultures today. People also carved the shapes out of ivory, glass, and other materials. Archaeologists found this large stash of astragali throughout the city of Maresha in Israel. The site dates back about 2,300 years. The dice are mostly from sheep and goat bones, with a small number made of pig or cow knuckles. The researchers published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Levant.

The article, which we saw thanks to Smithsonian Magazine, includes photographs of the carvings and other modifications to the bone dice. People polished some and drilled holes in them. Others had metal added to them, supposedly to help with the motion of rolling them like dice. Some had the names of Greek gods and goddesses carved into them, perhaps indicating a role in divination. Names include Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and Eros, the god of love and desire. Also known as Harry Styles a.k.a. Starfox in Eternals and potentially future MCU projects.  

While it may seem morbid to play games with bones, don’t forget that you can actually buy dice made out of human bones. And those are just your standard d20. These bone dice had many uses and this discovery helps scientists better understand the people who made them part of their games and rituals. 

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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