Mathematics Today: December 2004
“While I was a guest at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn during the summer of 2004, I came across the following interesting Roman item:
Figure 1: Roman dodecahedron from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn
This is a Roman dodecahedron made of bronze, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., which was found in the vicinity of modern Bonn. It has small spherical objects at each of its vertices, and at the centre of each of its faces is a circular hole. Also on the faces are small circles, arranged in the shape of a pentagon around the circular hole.
About 100 of these curious objects have been found, from England in the north and Hungary in the east to Italy, with the greatest number discovered in the west of Germany and in France. They appear in various contexts, and have been constructed of several materials, such as bronze and stone.
No-one knows what they were used for. They are never mentioned in contemporary literature and do not appear in any surviving pictures of the time. Various conjectures exist as to their use, from being used to calibrate the size of water pipes, through candle holders (wax was found in one of them) to army parade standard bases, however, the most widely-held theory is that they were religious artefacts of some sort, possibly used in rites derived from Celtic sources. This last hypothesis has been suggested because the dodecahedra have mostly been found in Gallo-Roman sites.
There are some references available in the archaeological literature, such as ; the standard book reference is , which is in Flemish with a French summary, and a slightly newer treatise is , which is in German (although many of the facts in this book are summarised in Artmann’s book on Euclid . One of the few recent references in the mathematical literature (which is in English) is a short note which is also by Artmann .