1,700-year-old metal object — ‘one of archaeology’s great enigmas’ —unearthed in UK

When a group of amateur archaeologists began exploring an ancient Roman site in the eastern part of England, they didn’t expect to find anything “spectacular.”

“There was nothing to indicate there was anything special there,” Richard Parker, an archaeologist with the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group, told McClatchy News in an interview.

In their roughly six years of explorations, the group has found “very normal things in archaeological sites in England,” Parker said. In June, they began excavating their first Roman site near Lincolnshire, which is about 115 miles north of London.

After a geophysical survey, the team dug four trenches and started their two-week excavation. They unearthed “lots of Roman pottery dating from the second to the fourth century, some animal teeth and bone, and some small metal finds from the Roman period.”

That is until the second to last day of the project when a “very strange metal find” was uncovered from one of the trenches “without warning,” according to Parker.

“We realized within a matter of minutes, that we’d found a very rare copper alloy Gallo Roman dodecahedron, which amazed everybody,” he said.

The 12-sided metal object might have been used for religious or ritual practices, according to experts.
The 12-sided metal object might have been used for religious or ritual practices, according to experts.

Dodecahedra are 12-sided hollow metal objects, according to the British Museum. Each side is a pentagon with equal sides, and each corner has a rounded knob. The artifacts are usually “roughly the size of an adult human fist.”

The dodecahedron found in Lincolnshire is about 3 inches tall and 3.4 inches wide, and it weighs about half a pound, according to the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group.

Archaeologists said the find marks the 33rd dodecahedron found either whole or in parts in Roman Britain, but it is the first found in the Midlands region.

Parker said the 1,700-year-old artifact is in “pristine” condition.

Now, the team is trying to understand more about what they call “one of archaeology’s great enigmas.”

“There are no known descriptions of dodecahedra in Roman literature and therefore their purpose remains extremely unclear,” the group said.

“They are not of a standard size, so will not be measuring devices. They don’t show signs of wear, so they are not a tool. Nor are they devices for knitting,” according to the archaeologists. “A huge amount of time, energy and skill was taken to create our dodecahedron, so it was not used for mundane purposes, especially when alternative materials are available that would achieve the same purpose.”

The team consulted with an expert in dodecahedra who analyzed the artifact and concluded that the object was likely “some form of religious or ritual object used in religious practice in the Roman times,” Parker said.

Experts also noted the dodecahedron’s peculiar composition.

The artifact is made of copper alloy, so it is about 75% copper, 7% tin and 18% lead, but the amount of lead is “very strange,” according to Parker. Lead was required so the metal could flow into the mold, but too much would have made the dodecahedron “not a very practical item.”

“You couldn’t throw it around or roll it because it would probably fracture,” he said. “It’s a very brittle medal.”

Archaeologists said the dodecahedron was “deliberately placed” alongside pottery in a sort of “excavated hole or quarry pit.”

The Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group will return to the site in 2024 to continue their explorations of the ancient Roman remains.

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