A Greek Bronze Astragalus (knucklebone) Gaming Piece, Hellenistic Period ca. 4th - 2nd century BCE
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This bronze weight in the shape of a knucklebone is referred to as an astragalus.
In ancient Greece, the word astragalus referred to the vertebrae and ankle bones (carpels and tarsals) usually from sheep. These bones, or astragaloi, were used as gaming pieces and are considered to be the precursors of dice. The term astragalus is used by historians and archaeologists to refer to games of chance played with the animal bones. (Century Unabridged Dictionary, 1889)
The astragaloi, called by Romans taxilli (singular: taxillus) were used for both gambling and decision-making. Although it has not been proven, these early forms of dice are thought to have been used in the “casting of lots,” or setting a course of action dependent on random chance. The most familiar instance is the Biblical story of the Roman soldiers casting lots for the robe of Christ at his crucifixion.
Tossing marked bones was a practice used not only by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but apparently dates back to our earliest ancestors. In The Origins of Randomness, Diane Mathios (2002) states, “Dice and astragali were also used in divination and soothsaying to make the wishes of the deity known."
See: Herod. 1, 94; Plut. De fort.Alex., 11,6; Hampe R. Die Stele aus Pharsalos, 107. Berliner Winckelmann Programm, Berlin 1951, p. 18; Peters B. G. Processing of bone in Ancient States of Black Sea. Moscow, 1986, p. 78-84, tbl. XVI, XVII; Becq de Fouquieres L. Les jeux des ancients. Paris, 1869, p. 51-54; Schmidt E. Spielzeug und Spiele der Kinder im klassischen Altertum, Meiningen, 1971; Davidson G.R. Corinth, vol XII, The Minor Objects. Princeton, 1952, p.222; Hesperia, XVI, 1947, p.241, pl. LXI; Delos, XVIII, pp 332f; Robinson, Excavation at Olyntus, X, pp. 502-504.
For a related example see Metropolitan Museum bronze astragalus, accession Number:X.229 (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/256765)
Condition: Intact and in very good condition overall.
Dimensions:length: 1 inch (2.5 cm), height: 1/2"
Provenance: Ex. Joel L. Malter Collection #1103 thereafter Paul Bessey Collection.
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