Many prehistoric dice were flat objects with just two sides, but the knucklebone, which has four sides, is apparently the direct ancestor of our modern dotted cubical die. One example, found in a Florida archaeological site, was the knucklebone of a prehistoric llama.
The knucklebone is still used as a gaming piece in some cultures. In Arabic, for example, the word for the knucklebones is the same as the word for dice. The Greeks and Romans, however, used the anklebones of a sheep and called them astragali or tali. These bones were also used for fortune telling. Those who predicted the future in this way were called astragalomancers.
In Europe and the ancient Near East, most dice were made of bone or ivory. However, other dice were made from bronze, agate, onyx, marble, rock crystal, amber, jet, alabaster, and porcelain. Etruscan dice made in central Italy about 900 B.C. are very similar to the dice of today, with the opposite faces adding up to seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5, 3 and 4. Dice in this configuration have also been found in Britain in the prehistoric earthworks of Maiden Castle.
Roman Gaming Tables
Roman gaming tables were engraved or scratched on the marble or stone slabs of the Roman Forum, in the Flavian Amphitheater, on the steps of the temple of Venus and even in other temples. Soldiers were apparently passionate gamblers, and apparently carried their heavy gaming tables when the army moved from one place to another.
The Roman emperors Augustus, Nero and Caligula were serious dice players. Claudius is said to have had dicing tables in his carriages. The imperial dice were thrown from conical beakers of carved ivory and the dice were sometimes of crystal inlaid with gold.
Besides anklebones, the Greeks and Romans also played with tesserae or cubical six-sided dice. In some games, they used both varieties.
An Indian Origin?
Modern dice probably first appeared in the Orient. The Korean dice used in the Buddhist game of Promotion contain both a magical formula and directions for the next move. The game sheet with which Promotion was played has directions in Sanskrit, which implies the game came originally from India.
The first written records of dice are contained in the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic. In Europe during the Middle Ages, both dicing schools and guilds existed. A twelfth century English text by Ordericus Vitalis says that “clergymen and bishops are fond of dice-playing.”