What The Heck Did The Ancient Egyptians Play With This 20-Sided Die?

Chances are you've rolled dice in your gaming career. The most common is the six-sided die — or "d6" in pen-and-paper parlance. The 20-sided die, or d20, is isolated mostly to RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons. Obviously, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax wasn't around between the years of 304-30 BC and certainly not in Eygpt. So, what then, did the ancient Egyptians play with this spectacular specimen.

The die is made from serpentine, known more scientifically as hydrous magnesium iron phyllosilicate (though it can contain minor impurities including cobalt and nickel). It measures 3.2 x 3.8 x 3.4cm and looks like it'd roll just fine. But none of this makes it super-interesting. What does is the fact it is the oldest known d20 in existence, according to this article over at io9, pre-dating the previous record holder, a glass Roman die from the 2nd century AD.

While I'd look pretty schmick rocking up to my regular role-playing group with this baby, I could probably afford a house-sized box full of plastic ones — and a custom-made mechanical shaker to roll them all at once — for the same price.

Dice [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via io9]


    If you look at both the Egyptian and Roman dice they have the same symbols on them - ?Greek in origin?

      Yes because they are not egyptian nor roman. Icosahedra (greek word meaning 20facesided) belong to Platonic solids (Plato being a greek philosopher and mathematician) The ones found in Egypt are dated from the Ptolemaic era (greek rulership over egypt) and are greek made.

    Ancient history never ceases to amaze me.

    Last edited 11/11/12 3:52 pm

      I know right? Everything we seem so sure about could end up being wrong when you're talking history that old, imagine all the things that have happened that no one ever recorded or passed down..

      Agreed. Ancient History and Science. Almost every day on Ars Technica there's at least one story about how some new discovery has completely changed what we thought we knew about something.

    This is just proof that time travel is not only possible but the person who invented time travel also enjoys D&D and left his 20 sider behind on accident.

    Also, my history is a little rusty but that looks like the alphabet on it?

      Yeah it looks like the Greek alphabet to me. So if it is Ancient Egyptian, it's definitely late. Why does the article/museum seem to have no infomation about it? =(

      It's the Greek alphabet, yes - the first twenty letters of it. Only 20 sides, after all!

      Greek letters. Note the theta in the center die face. Is this actually an Egyptian artifact, or is it an item from elsewhere that wound up in Egypt?

        It is Egyptian just from the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history when Egypt was governed by Macedonians (for all intents and purposes; Ancient Greeks) so the die would have used the Greek alphabet rather than Hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics would be useless on a die. Too many variations.

    There's no reason to assume it was used to play games. It's far more likely it was used for the equivalent of throwing bones or some other religious practice.

      My money's on dialling a stargate.

        Either that or Eye Spy roll the die

    For all of you who are curious: dice like these would have been used for a variety of purposes, from games (yes, they did play games in ancient times, too!), to gambling (which is of course basically a game), to fortune telling and even for, say, the division of an inheritance. To the ancients, a dice roll would not have been just about pure luck, but was something the Gods had control over - hence the wide array of uses for such a die. It's inscribed with the first twenty letters of the Greek alphabet, which, even though it is an Egyptian die, makes perfect sense as the Ptolemies were Greek and Greek was the official ruling class language of Egypt (the ordinary Egyptian still speaking - well, Egyptian) during that period.

    I run a blog about ancient cultures with a group of historians, and we've posted about this particular die a couple of months back. We also have some information on other ancient games, if you're interested in that sort of thing: http://ancientpeoples.tumblr.com/tagged/games


    Probably rolled to see how many lashings the slaves get.

    Yeah, science is changing often. When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher told us that everything he was telling us was a lie because science is always discovering new things and killing old beliefs and theories and replacing them with new. :)

    Actually these dice are called "Platonic solids" - Plato used them to teach his students the principles of geometry and mathematics. So they functioned as geometric models and were used in universities. Egypt at the time had many Greek or Hellenistic universities (as can be seen in the movie Agora), hence the greek letters. I teach the History of Games and as far as I am aware, this is their primary purpose. Believe me, I would much rather want to believe they played D&D instead. More about Platonic Solids here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platonic_solid

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