Maths News: Historical Dice

Old dice are surprisingly familiar

Dice are the cubes of chance, used in all kinds of games. But they’ve been around for a lot longer than Monopoly, or even Snakes and Ladders.

Recently, two anthropologists started researching historical dice. They looked at 110 historical dice found around the Netherlands, the oldest dating back to the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. And it’s surprising how familiar Roman dice look.

Even 2000 years ago, the numbers were written out in dots, in the same familiar patterns. The five was a square of dots with one in the middle, and the six was the familiar two rows of three.

There are even deeper similarities. You might know that the opposite sides of a standard dice adds up to seven – the one is opposite the six, the two opposite the five and the three opposite the four. Roman dice followed this pattern too.

But Roman dice were not completely the same as modern dice. You might be surprised to hear that most Roman dice were often lopsided. Half of the dice analysed had short edges that were more than 10% shorter than the longest edge. And that means they probably didn’t roll very fairly.

People eventually started making fairer dice around 1200 AD, and there was an even greater improvement after mathematicians started studying probability in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These days, most dice are very close to perfect cubes.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that so little has changed over the years. When our current number symbols (1, 2, 3, etc.) were introduced to Holland around the 12th century, dice kept their dots. So if you invent a time machine and go back to ancient Europe, at least you’ll know how to read their dice!

Like this story? Visit doublehelix.csiro.au for more.

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