Roman dodecahedron
March 3, 2010 9:58 PM   Subscribe

The Roman dodecahedron is a mystery. With its beautifully symmetrical twelve pentagonal faces, the Greeks held the dodecahedron with a certain reverance. But the Roman fascination is less clear. Were they used for water pipes? Were they astronomic measuring instrumens? Were they candle stands? It's a mystery.
posted by twoleftfeet (78 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
So the Romans were into playing Barbarians, eh?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:03 PM on March 3, 2010 [9 favorites]


For saving throws, obviously
posted by empath at 10:10 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The d12 has always been the red-headed stepchild of the pen and paper platonic solids.
posted by ktrey at 10:13 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is really weird. When I was in sixth grade I had to make a dodecahedron out of paper detailing twelve contributions the Romans made to Western Civ. Coincidence?
posted by Partario at 10:18 PM on March 3, 2010


That's wonderful! Now sitting in my head next to this Indian icosahedron box.
posted by dreamyshade at 10:20 PM on March 3, 2010


Partario, this song began spontaneously playing after I read your comment. I even tried shutting off my computer, but it just got louder.

Also, this is neat.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 10:37 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


wwwweird. ~^
posted by sexyrobot at 10:38 PM on March 3, 2010


D-Twizzy!
posted by bwg at 10:41 PM on March 3, 2010


What's the Latin word for tchotchke?

No, seriously. What is it?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:04 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's the Latin word for tchotchke?

Curio?
posted by shii at 11:06 PM on March 3, 2010


Damn, all the air went out of every joke I had in mind when I realized this wasn't a D20.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:50 PM on March 3, 2010


Whoa!
posted by Splunge at 12:19 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some sort of portable glory hole device
posted by wcfields at 12:22 AM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Probably roman Ipods
posted by Kudos at 12:25 AM on March 4, 2010


Jedi Lightsaber Training Ball
posted by stumcg at 12:31 AM on March 4, 2010


Some kind of multiple French knitting dolly?
posted by Phanx at 1:12 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anyone else get the feeling that when a bunch of archaeologists decide to label something an "unknown religious artifact" it means essentially the same thing as sticking a post-it note on it with the words "FUCK IF I KNOW".
posted by Justinian at 1:16 AM on March 4, 2010 [23 favorites]


Justinian: pace the Atlatl.
posted by pharm at 1:27 AM on March 4, 2010


Katamari
posted by Phanx at 1:29 AM on March 4, 2010


Yeah, seems to escape some people that it may be that people just thought they were cool. But the candle holder seems to make sense since there was wax in one.
posted by delmoi at 1:35 AM on March 4, 2010


Size gauges for candles?
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:54 AM on March 4, 2010


from the Wikipedia link : "Most of them are made of bronze but some also seem to be made of stone."

My erections "seem to be made out of stone" too, but a scientist could tell if they were or not.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:57 AM on March 4, 2010 [8 favorites]


Obviously it's one of these things.
posted by Davenhill at 2:32 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Justinian, that's exactly what my prof said in Archaeology 101.

I wonder just how long the anti-d12 prejudice has been in existence? Perhaps... Now I see. The hatred of the d12 is linked to the fall of Rome! Not all Romans, however, shared this hatred of wielders of battleaxes prone to induce lamentation in women.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:08 AM on March 4, 2010


What's it for? It's for being cool as fuck! That's what it's for.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:55 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


That "determine the sowing date" is completely ridiculous. A dodecahedron is both too complicated AND not complicated enough to do the job. It's not complicated enough, because the angle of the sun on a given day is going to vary by latitude, so you need additional knowledge and/or equipment to set up for that. And it's too complicated, because plenty of other civilizations have been able to figure out when to plant without having to use a dodecahedron by using simpler systems. (For instance, a calendar, which the Romans had. Granted, it slid around a bit, but not by so much that you couldn't use it to predict when the plant seeds.)

I like the water pipe (or other tube) standard measuring device idea, but without any data on how standardized the dodecs themselves are it's impossible to say. None of these links even says something as basic as how many different sized holes there are on a given object, let alone across all of them. Do the corner spheres show any wear as though they'd been attached to something? No information.

Instead of information we get the "theory" that it's a religious artifact of some kind, which is unfalsifiable because there are no constraints.
posted by DU at 5:01 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Saying "calendar" and nothing the dodec has 12 faces actually gives me an idea. Except with no data as to age on these things, it's impossible to see if it lines up with calendar the Romans would have been using during that period.
posted by DU at 5:04 AM on March 4, 2010


Uh...sorry, I'm not crabby at the poster because this is awesome information I'd never heard of before. I'm crabby at, I guess, the scientists for failing to gather a single iota of information on this puzzle.
posted by DU at 5:07 AM on March 4, 2010


Penis lengthener. Obviously.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:19 AM on March 4, 2010


detailing twelve contributions the Romans made to Western Civ.

What did the Romans do for us?


Yes, yes, the aqueducts.
posted by piratebowling at 5:24 AM on March 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


The wiki link says that several hundred of these things have been found. So has anyone tried sticking them together into a larger structure and seeing if some kind of energy field is created, causing a wormhole to another dimension from whence the Romans came in the first place, spreading joy and laughter and murder and destruction wherever they went?

Could happen.
posted by ZsigE at 5:29 AM on March 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


I am guessing that the artifacts were the Roman's way of bragging.
It showed everyone what expertise they had in creating mold cavities and casting.
After that, it was a cool decoration.
posted by Drasher at 5:29 AM on March 4, 2010


Giant tinkertoy sets were all the rage one Saturnalia. After that, you couldn't give the things away, so the ended up in landfills.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:40 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cool decoration. Cf obelisks. Religious tie in optional. (Any other examples of ancient abstract art with no obvious utilitarian side?)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:13 AM on March 4, 2010


Hrönir.
posted by Phanx at 6:19 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


You buy a Greek slave to teach your children geometry, he's gonna need supplies. A copy of Euclid's Elements and a few of these is a good start.
posted by gimonca at 6:37 AM on March 4, 2010


Team Jacks with a live goat instead of a rubber ball?
posted by francesca too at 6:42 AM on March 4, 2010


Looks like a bronze-age DSL router to me.
posted by gmm at 6:50 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


reverence
posted by unSane at 6:53 AM on March 4, 2010


Weren't there 12 chief roman gods? These probably represent that worldview...
posted by LakesideOrion at 7:20 AM on March 4, 2010


Clearly these were sold at Pier Unums across the Roman Empire as umbrella holders. When the Roman children were putting their parents into retirement homes they were probably as confused as us as to why someone would buy something so ugly.
posted by geoff. at 7:25 AM on March 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mayhaps the dodecahedrons are inactive - when they shine, they are used to catch Pokéthulhu!
posted by FatherDagon at 7:26 AM on March 4, 2010


I think it's interesting that the holes are different diameter. That strongly suggests some specific purpose.
posted by Nelson at 7:36 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is pretty cool. But the dodecahedrons are oh-so-obviously merely the leftover constituent parts of Barbarians whom the Romans had decimated.
posted by jefficator at 7:39 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Laser Lit Dodecahedral Die.
posted by Tube at 7:45 AM on March 4, 2010


5 'hedrons?! Too expensive man.
posted by fuq at 8:03 AM on March 4, 2010


Nelson: "43I think it's interesting that the holes are different diameter. That strongly suggests some specific purpose."

Yes! Of course! They used them to measure portions of spaghetti!
posted by Drasher at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't mean to suggest anything about Roman soldiers, but exactly how big are the holes in these dodecahedra? Maybe Roman dick-measuring contests were actual dick-measuring contests.

Dodecahedron, she's my baby. Dodecahedron, I don't mean maybe...
posted by pracowity at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2010


So the holes on one dXII are of different diameter, but is the set of diameters standardized (for values of standardized appropriate to the ancient, pre-industrial world) across different dodecahedra? That would go a long way in supporting the piping form argument.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I smell Phantasm prequel...
posted by brundlefly at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2010


> when a bunch of archaeologists decide to label something an "unknown religious artifact" ...

Justinian, that's exactly what it means. My uncle was an archeologist, and he said "child's toy or religious object" was the accepted euphemism for "baffling doodad" or "tchotchke of mystery".
posted by Quietgal at 9:41 AM on March 4, 2010


"Pier Unums".
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on March 4, 2010


It doesn't have to be just a pipe fitting tool. It could be a tool for measuring diameters in general: chair and table legs, weapon shafts, axles and rods in machines, etc.
posted by oddman at 10:07 AM on March 4, 2010


Also, surely it's either Pier Unī or Pier Una depending on the gender of preference.
posted by oddman at 10:12 AM on March 4, 2010


So the holes on one dXII are of different diameter, but is the set of diameters standardized (for values of standardized appropriate to the ancient, pre-industrial world) across different dodecahedra? That would go a long way in supporting the piping form argument.


Also, are the layouts of the holes the same? If so, that sort of care might mean religious rather than work-a-day tool.

I'm also curious if the concentric rings around the holes match up to the sizes of other holes.

Surely some examples of Roman pipes have survived to check out that angle...?
posted by codswallop at 10:28 AM on March 4, 2010


It's a candlestick holder. The different diameter holes are to accommodate different size candles. The little balls on the corners provide a stable base. Clever design, and would still work well today -- I wonder if the patent has expired?

This feels like an AskMe -- I'm hoping the OP will mark mine as best answer.
posted by LordSludge at 10:52 AM on March 4, 2010


They're Higgs bosons.

Two mysteries solved for the price of one!
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 11:02 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


LordSludge: It's a candlestick holder. The different diameter holes are to accommodate different size candles. The little balls on the corners provide a stable base. Clever design, and would still work well today -- I wonder if the patent has expired?

That would also be my guess. Back then candles were hand made by dipping and the diameters were poorly controlled. You just pick a side for the best fit and the knobs provide a stable base.

One would expect to more consistently find the artifacts with wax traces, but since candles then were made from tallow rather than paraffin, the wax would be expected to degrade more easily. I wonder if modern spectroscopy methods have been used to detect remnant organic compounds that would reveal tallow.
posted by JackFlash at 12:17 PM on March 4, 2010


I guess the fact they weren't mentioned anywhere would point to their being something utterly mundane like candle holders.

Pretty clever ones, though.
posted by codswallop at 12:37 PM on March 4, 2010


They seem too much to be candle holders; that's a hella lot of work involved in making this device.

The "mushrooms" at the vertices look like they'd be good for tying-down leather straps. Could the device be a tinkertoy-like part? Used to erect shelters &c?

I'd like to know if the holes are standardized sizes.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:25 PM on March 4, 2010


Oh, Metafilter, how I heart thee: inspiration for my casting class. "What is it?" "Its an unspecified religious object". It'll go doubly well for moldmaking when making N of them then becomes an exercise in where to place strange objects of utter uselessness so that future archeologists might find them and be MYSTEFIED!!
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:49 PM on March 4, 2010


It doesn't have to be just a pipe fitting tool. It could be a tool for measuring diameters in general: chair and table legs, weapon shafts, axles and rods in machines, etc.

Thinking about it again, the diameter measuring tool doesn't make much sense. A flat piece of metal with different sized holes would be way easier to make and much more practical to use, like you do for drill bits.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:54 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I might be wrong, but I don't think the Romans had standard sizes of piping - I believe water pipes were made by hand as required from folded lead sheet - and I think the pipes typically had a big seam down one side that would have prevented insertion into a gauge of this kind even if standard sizing had been important?
posted by Phanx at 2:37 PM on March 4, 2010


What about testing the sizes of coins, to check whether they'd been clipped?
posted by Phanx at 2:38 PM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


The gauge idea is stupid, as Dr Dracator said. I don't think the Romans were big on precise measurements; there's no indication that the holes actually are of different sizes; and there's certainly no indication that any variance between the holes is identical between different items.

As for the candlestick idea ... please. Anything can be a candlestick. Candles are soft and the wax makes them fit on or into most things.

Assuming that these dodecahedra actually exist, my bet is that they were made because they are cool (as others said) and perhaps some were repurposed as toys or candlesticks or decorations, either in temples or elsewhere.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:20 PM on March 4, 2010


The little ball feet on all of them have me intrigued. While providing a level base for some form of support, as you'd need on a candle holder, they aren't necessary for that purpose if the base is flat. A d12 sits nicely on the table just fine without them. So, maybe some should have the ball-feet, and some wouldn't. But they all appear to have them. The ball-feet are fundamental to the purpose of the device. Why?

The thought struck me that you would want to raise the device if you wanted it to sit above a liquid. Water? Oil? Candle wax? Perhaps the different diameter holes held different gauges of cordage that served as a wick, and the d12 sat in a shallow bowl or flat dish filled with oil. The wick could lay in the oil and you'd have a little portable lamp.
posted by Xoebe at 5:02 PM on March 4, 2010


Coin changing sounds pretty right on to me.
posted by snsranch at 5:54 PM on March 4, 2010


Isn't it obvious?

EARTH HAS 12 CORNER SIMULTANEOUS 12-DAY TIME DODECAHEDRON IN ONLY 24 HOUR ROTATION. 12 CORNER DAYS, DODECAHEDRON 12 QUAD EARTH - NO 1 DAY GOD. YOU ARE EDUCATED EVIL!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:59 PM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Paperweight.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:48 PM on March 4, 2010


MeFi: overthinking a plate of brass Roman dodecaheron religious candlestick holder coin sorter artifacts with knobs on.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:35 PM on March 4, 2010


I might be wrong, but I don't think the Romans had standard sizes of piping - I believe water pipes were made by hand as required from folded lead sheet - and I think the pipes typically had a big seam down one side that would have prevented insertion into a gauge of this kind even if standard sizing had been important?

I think you are right about the seam. Also, I am now remembering that the way they attached pipes was by tapering them slightly and sliding them into each other. So a device like this could be used to measure the taper, if the holes on the opposite sides were different sizes and there was no seam.

But what I really wanted to say was this: They had standard size *nozzles*. That's how they measured how much water a running-water-supplied house could get. They didn't measure flow, just cross sectional area. I don't know how the nozzles were constructed, maybe they had seams too.

But really, we don't have enough information on the dodecahedrons to make even an edumacated guess.
posted by DU at 5:37 AM on March 5, 2010


Possibly plumbing junction boxes for very very complicated high rises.

Which have not survived....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:39 AM on March 5, 2010


Maybe it was made by worshipers of a god of humor or mischief. They aren't simply mysterious religious objects they are mysterious religious obbjects designed to mystify future civilizations!
posted by oddman at 3:43 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


might they be some kind of 'school project' for people learning how to cast? Kind of the equivalent of an ash-tray in shop class.
posted by empath at 3:59 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am wondering about something used for tying curtains back, or maybe a hair decoration. The knobs would facilitate either of these applications, making the object less likely to slip out of place.
posted by Goofyy at 8:08 PM on March 5, 2010


I like the idea that they were some kind of "final exam" for Roman metallurgists. Making a dodecahedron is hard enough, but getting those little balls to stick to the corners is really tricky. Plus you have to show that you know how to cut holes of different sizes. If you had a couple of these things in your hands you would probably notice little variations: "the dodecahedron of Tibius is nice, but that of Patellus has rounder holes and smoother welding." So you'd have a standardized test for who was better at bronze.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:40 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sure metalworkers did have some kind of final test, but I doubt they'd waste materials by keeping so many of them around. Unless they were also useful, which brings us back to the problem of what they were used for.
posted by DU at 8:54 AM on March 6, 2010


They would still be useful as a kind of "portfolio"; a portable example of the worker's talent. The Wikipedia article says that they range in size from 4 cm to 11 cm (2 to 4 inches), which is pretty small, so it wouldn't be a huge waste of materials to keep one around.

My knowledge of metalworking is fairly minimal (I once straightened out a paperclip) but I imagine it would be hard to make a lost wax cast with those little balls on the vertices; you'd have to destroy the mold to get the dodecahedron out, so there would have to be a one-off aspect to making one of these things.

This article mentions that one dodecahedron has been found with the names of the signs of the zodiac inscribed on the faces, which does suggest a religious use, but then why wouldn't more of them be so inscribed? Perhaps the inscriptions are purely decorative, which then would suggest the dodecahedra didn't really have a "use" at all.

Surprisingly little about this on the web.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:44 PM on March 6, 2010


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