hist-games: Dice

David KUIJT kuijt at umiacs.umd.edu
Mon Mar 1 09:40:29 PST 1999

On Mon, 1 Mar 1999, Michael Burridge wrote:

>   Oh - and as a smaller side question, does anyone know how dice in 
> medieval Europe were constructed?  Were they wood?  Bone?  How large 
> were they?  Did they have pips or numbers?  How were the pips or numbers 
> marked onto their surfaces?  

I've made a small survey of several dozen surviving examples in museums in
England, plus the usual references in art (both heraldry and later, in the
15th century, once realistic portraiture of objects began).  I can give
you the following unsubstantiated generalizations.

Dice were made of most anything.  Surviving examples of Jet (Viking, in
Yorvik), gold/silver (Mary Queen of Scot's Backgammon dice, specially made
to match with a gold and silver backgammon board), ivory, bone, horn,
bronze (Roman), and other materials.  I have seen _no_ surviving wooden
dice, but I am virtually certain they existed.  Small wooden artifacts
would not survive hundreds of years of weathering very well. 

Dice never had numbers.  I haven't seen any examples with numbers, not
one.  They all had pips.  Pips are usually of the "dot and ring" design;
some Roman examples were dot-and-double-ring.  It is trivial to make a
tool that will drill out dot-and-ring or dot-and-double-ring designs (I've
done it myself with a flattened nail and a file).

Some Viking dice (the Jet ones mentioned earlier) were nothing like
square; they were noticeably parallelograms on all faces.  Don't play dice
with a Viking, or if you do, don't use his dice.

All surviving period dice I've seen in museums had opposite sides add up
to 7 (same as modern dice). However, they did not necessarily correspond
to the modern scheme where all dice are 4-5-6 clockwise (looking at one
corner); some of them are 4-5-6 clockwise and some (even from the same
archaeological find) are counterclockwise. 

Charles Cotton (mid 17th century) talks about methods of creating loaded
dice by inserting a boar's bristle in a hole in one corner, making that
corner slightly more bouncy etc.

That's all I've got for now,

Dafydd ap Gwystl

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