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Monday, 13 September 2021

More Than Just a Load of Old Dice

This past week I decided to photograph a collection of fourteen dice, which are currently displayed in the games case in the House of Life (fig. 1). Like modern dice, most are six-sided and cubed. Cubic dice have been in use in the Near East since the third millennium BC, with different systems used at different times for distributing the pips. In Egypt, examples dating to the New Kingdom are reported as isolated finds at Amarna, Lisht, and Deir el-Bahari. The numbering of the opposite sides (1-6, 2-5, 3-4), each adding up to seven, comes into more general use only later. During the Graeco-Roman Period, cubic dice became more common and gradually replaced throwing sticks and knucklebones for use with board games. Numerous examples have been found at Naukratis.

Fig. 1: Egypt Centre dice

W508–W515 is a group of eight dice that are listed in the Egypt Centre catalogue as coming from the collection the Reverend William MacGregor (1842–1937), which were sold at auction in 1922. These dice are listed in the auction catalogue (lot 671) as “five Ivory Dice, four of cubicle form, the other half cubicle; another, in granite, well worn at the edges; one in steatite; and one in pale green faience.” Unfortunately, there are no details as to the provenance or dating of the objects. When they came to Swansea in 1971, they were accompanied by a Wellcome object card (A15598), which provided a brief description for each item, sometimes with MacGregor’s own numbering system noted (fig. 2). Since stickers with these numbers are still on some of the dice, this is particularly useful as it has allowed us to pair up each of the items in Swansea with those listed on the flimsy slip.

Fig. 2: Wellcome flimsy slip A15598

As noted in the auction catalogue, four of the dice are in bone/ivory of cubic form (W508, W509, W513, W515). The pips on the first three of these show a dot-in-circle motif, which recalls designs presumed to be of magical significance. This is possibly an abstract eye to ward off the evil-eye, which serve an apotropaic function. Easily reproduced with a tool and visible in many cultures and times, this symbol may have lost its meaning, and become simply a decorative pattern, or may have one that we have not yet discovered (fig. 3). The fourth (W515) is very similar to our own dice in which the pips have a solid black fill. W510 is also made of bone, but is half cubic in form. This die is particularly well worn with the pips (dot-in-circle motif) only just visible on the long sides.

Fig. 3: W513

The three remaining dice from the MacGregor sale are made of faience (W511), stone (W512), and steatite (W514). The faience die is circular in shape with pips taking the form of the dot-in-circle motif. The stone die is the largest of all the dice in the Egypt Centre collection, with the dot-in-circle pips and worn corners showing signs of heavy use. At the opposite side of the scale in terms is size is the steatite die, which is one of the smallest in the collection. Yet it is also one of the most interesting in terms of production, with traces of an orange pigment present in the dot-in-circle pips (fig. 4). The composition of this fill is currently unknown, but it is something that could potentially be researched in the future using modern scientific techniques.

Fig. 4: Orange pigment in W514

Five other dice (W516–W519, W521) can be traced back to the collection of Frederick George Hilton Price (1842–1909), who formed one of the largest private collections of Egyptian antiquities ever assembled, which was sold at auction in 1911. Yet it wasn’t until 1931 that the dice—along with one other not in the Egypt Centre collection—were purchased by Henry Wellcome. W516 is a mosaic glass die, which is dark blue with yellow and red pips (fig 5). The number on the object (4085) relates to Hilton Price’s own numbering system, with the object being published by the collector in the second of his two catalogues in 1908. This die is identical to one in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, which is dated to the first century.

Fig. 5: W516

W517 is a rectangular die with only the long sides numbered (1, 2, 5, 6). On one of the short sides, F.480 has been written in black ink. This represents the old numbering system used by Hilton Price when cataloguing his collection in four unpublished manuscripts compiled in 1894. This was later replaced in 1896 by a sequential numbering system (2978 for this object) when Hilton Price published the first of his catalogues. However, the unpublished manuscripts often include additional information and images of the objects not found in the two published catalogues (fig. 6). Hilton Price dated this rectangular die to the Roman Period, noting that it came from Maṣr ‘Atîḳa, which was used by Europeans to refer to Old Cairo (Fustat). The three remaining dice from the Hilton Price collection are made of bone (W518), steatite (W519), and stone (W521). A further example in the Egypt Centre (EC1483) is made of lead. Although lead dice are attested in Egypt, the provenance and collection history of EC1483 is completely unknown at present.

Fig. 6: W517 in the Hilton Price unpublished manuscript

While these objects might seem small and mundane, they are items that people today can closely relate to. I often wonder who would have used these dice and in what context. Photographing them up close also helped me to appreciate how they were produced, particularly with the bone examples showing scratch marks of the craftsman who made them (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: W508 displaying extensive cut marks

Postscript: While writing this blog over the weekend, I came across an image of a cylindrical box identified as a throwing cup (12.181.259a, b) by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This immediately reminded me of a similar object in the Egypt Centre collection (EC1448) for which we had no photo on file. So, the first thing on Monday morning, I checked on the object in the store and the similarities are very striking (fig. 8)! The surface interior appears to have heavy denting, perhaps as a result of shaking the dice. This item comes from the 1906 auction of Robert de Rustafjaell (1859–1943), with writing on the underside suggesting that it comes from Akhmim. 

Fig. 8: Possible throwing cup (EC1448)


  1. I wonder if they were used for divining, perhaps?

    1. Could well have been. Always interesting to think how they would have been used!