How centuries-old dice reveal changing attitudes about fate A tessera or a Roman six-sided die from the Vidy Roman Museum. (Rama/Wikimedia Commons/yoppy/Flickr)
How centuries-old dice reveal changing attitudes about fate
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There are many games that use dice. Those games include Yahtzee. It includes backgammon. And there are many others. We expect that these dice will be “fair.” We expect each is as likely to land on any of their six sides. But probability wasn’t always a concern when it came to the roll of the dice. That's according to Michelle Starr. She was reporting for Science Daily. A study analyzed dice. These dice dated from the Roman era to the 17th century. It found that the little cubes have become more uniform over time. And they have become more fair. 

Researchers studied 110 dice. They came from museums. They came from archaeological depots. These were in the Netherlands. The researchers were from the University of California, Davis. They also were from the American Museum of Natural History. 

They compared the 110 dice to 62 dice from the United Kingdom. They described the evolution of dice over the centuries in the study. It was published in the journal Acta Archaeologica.

The researchers found that dice made before 400 B.C. were large. This was during the Roman era. These dice typically adhered to the “sevens” configuration. 

What is this configuration? The opposite sides add up to the number seven (1-6, 2-5, 3-4). This is the configuration commonly used today. But they were unlike the symmetrical cubes that we know today. The Roman dice were highly irregular in shape. They were made from a variety of materials. These materials included bone. It included metal. And it included clay. They were often squished. Or they were lopsided. 

It is possible that ancient Romans used irregular dice on purpose. They may have thought it would help manipulate the roll. That's according to the researchers. But it might also be true that Romans weren’t really concerned about the shape of their dice. They may have believed that the outcome of a roll was determined by fate.

Researchers are certain that the Romans’ wonky dice would have affected how the dice fell. 

“The majority of the asymmetrical dice have the 1 and 6 on opposite sides of the flattened cube in positions more likely to roll ‘up.’” That's what they explained in the study.

Dice became more standardized starting in 1100 A.D. This may suggest that European gamblers became more concerned about rooting out players who tried to gain an advantage with unfair dice. The cubes got smaller. This led to a change in design. Before, a die’s “pips,” or dots, were surrounded by two rings around them. In the 12th century, there was room for only a single ring. The configuration of dice also shifted to a numbering style. It was popular in ancient Egypt. It was also popular in Mesopotamia. This saw opposing sides of a die add up to a prime number (1-2, 3-4, 5-6).

Jelmer Eerkens is an anthropologist. He works at UC Davis. He is also one of the authors of the study. He spoke to Christina Ayele Djossa. She works at Atlas Obscura. “We don’t really have a good idea why that [change] happened or what caused that shift. But we see it both in the U.K. and the Netherlands. So, it was something people must have agreed upon.”

Dice underwent yet another big change. This happened during the Renaissance. It started around 1450. Dice became less regular in size. They also were less regular in pip style. But they became more standardized in symmetry. And in configuration. This was a shift back to the “sevens” system. The increasing attention paid to symmetry in particular may have been driven by new knowledge of probability. It is a field of mathematics. It blossomed during the Renaissance.

“A new worldview was emerging.” That is what Eerkens said in a statement. 

“People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability. And we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers. We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games.”

The evolving shape of dice may seem like a niche topic. But knowing about these six-sided implements can be very useful to archaeologists. It can also be useful for historians. Understanding changes in dice could help with the dating of archaeological sites. This is particularly true if there is a scarcity of other materials that would be useful in dating.

Dice also offer insight into the transmission of knowledge throughout northwestern Europe. Ancient dice were quite irregular. But later dice were standardized. This suggests that there were a small number of die manufacturers. It may also suggest that manufacturers were staying faithful to culturally transmitted rules about die production. The changing roll of the dice itself suggests shifting worldviews in Europe.

“Gamblers may have seen dice throws as no longer determined by fate,” the researchers write in their study, “but instead as randomizing objects governed by chance.”

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Do you think dice are fair? Why or why not?
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