In ancient times, astragali were used in spiritual rituals and as tools for games. They are the direct predecessors of items that even young children are familiar with today—dice.
The knucklebones of such as animals as sheep or deer are called “astragali.” They have frequently been found in archaeological digs of settlements dating back more than 10,000 years.
An astragalus has an irregular, non-symmetrical shape, with four big sides and two sides with rounded surfaces. When thrown, it gives four possible outcomes.
To ancient humans, the randomness of resulting throws suggested supernatural forces at work—spirits or gods would determine how the knucklebones would land.
For this reason, astragali were initially used in rituals related to divination in many cultures of the past. At some archaeological sites, their discovery at shrines or temples has suggested they were also used as votive offerings.
Over time, craftsmen began putting markings on the bones that reflected the relative value of each side. Because numbers had not been invented at the time, studs or notches were used to distinguish the surfaces 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The astragali were usually thrown in pairs or in sets of three. Many different games were created by ancient gamblers, perhaps the simplest being who could throw the highest value. The stakes used for betting would have been goods, food or clothing.
Astragali discovered in Mesopotamia have revealed that the bones were used with gaming boards similar to backgammon. These implements date back to around 6000 BCE. The astragali were thrown to determine how far a player could advance his/her piece on the board.
About 5,000 years ago, the practice of shaping the bones into cubes was initiated. It allowed the astragali to roll more smoothly. The now familiar “pips” (spots or dots) were added around 1300 BCE, with the lowest value being “1” and the highest “6,” just like modern dice. References exist to such dice being used at the time of the Trojan War.
Astragali have been discovered in almost every part of the world and in different cultures. When early Romans came across the bones, they began using other materials such as animal teeth, stone and wood to fashion cubes. Such substances produced a more symmetrical shape and a uniform density for more random outcomes.
The Romans marked their cubes with pip values the same as the astragali. Around the same time, very similar cubes were being made of jade and ivory in China. These were the precursors of the modern dice that we use today.
Although astragali are no longer used for games or gambling nowadays, they still have an influence, which is evident in casinos around the world. Ask any croupier where you can “throw the bones” and you’ll be directed to a craps table, where countless players still believe that Fate controls the roll of the dice.
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