Archaeologists have discovered a large assemblage of knucklebones, or astragali, used by inhabitants of the ancient city of Maresha, in southern Israel, c.2,300 years ago.
Astragali, made from the ankle bones of sheep and goats, were used as dice in many ancient societies, particularly across the Greek and Roman world, and are known to have had a variety of functions in everything from children’s and adults’ games to gambling and even ritual activities such as divination. They are found in large numbers around the Mediterranean, but few examples are known from the Hellenistic Levant. The Maresha assemblage of 530 astragali is unique for both its size and its quality. These astragali were discovered several years ago during excavations of the vast complex of man-made caves beneath the city – which are filled with debris from the residential layer above them, mostly dating to the 3rd-2nd centuries BC – but recent analysis has shed more light on how they were used.
Researchers discovered that many of the bones had been modified – shaved down, polished, perforated, or filled with lead – in order to improve the roll of the dice. They also found that some had been engraved with Greek inscriptions, naming deities (most commonly Nike, goddess of victory, but also Aphrodite and Hermes) or featuring game instructions or techniques, such as ‘overpower’. Examples were found of astragali inscribed with numbers and other symbols thought to be related to ancient games or divination.
The recent study investigated the distribution of the astragali around the site as well, and found that some came from domestic contexts and were presumably used in a variety of everyday games, while others were found in areas where ritual activities are believed to have taken place. Some of these astragali were found alongside ostraca (pottery sherds) inscribed with Aramaic incantations or questions about the future, further indicating that they were used in cleromancy and other forms of divination.
This remarkable collection of astragali offers a new insight into the lives of the occupants of ancient Maresha, showing that astragali were used by people of all classes and for many different purposes, and that they frequently played a role in both secular and ritual activities.
The research has been published in the journal Levant (https://doi.org/10.1080/00758914.2022.2048433).