Pair of Knucklebones
Unknown artist, Greek
Pair of Knucklebones, 5th century BCE
Museum Appropriation Fund 23.358
Classical JewelryAncient Jewelry from the Museum's Collection
Edited ByHolloway, R. Ross, ed.
Contributions byHackens, Tony
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design., 1976
TypeMonographs and Collections
About the work
Games were as much of a part of daily life in the ancient world as they are today. Serving as both dice and the equivalent of jacks, knucklebones were used in many ancient games. Sheep and goats, the most common farm animals in the Greek world, were the main source for bones. Knucklebones have been used since the dawn of Greek history; Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed the invention to knucklebones to the hero Palamedes.
In addition to using animal bones, craftsmen fashioned knucklebones from other materials, including stone, ivory, and assorted metals. Gold was scarce in Greece and would have been imported from Egypt, the Caucasus Mountains, or as far away as Central Asia, which made it very expensive. Gold is also a very soft metal, and making it an impractical choice for many uses. It is likely that these knucklebones were made to be buried with a wealthy deceased person, as grave goods.
Instead of making the perfectly cubic dice we use today, ancient craftsmen made dice in the shape of animal knucklebones. This is an example of skeuomorphism, a term used by designers to describe new objects that retain characteristics of their predecessors for purely aesthetic purposes. Why do you think ancient designers used skeuomorphs? Can you think of modern examples of skeuomorphs, or objects that retain the form of an earlier version?
Archaeologists often do not have all the information they need to determine the function of an object. For example, items found in burial settings could have been used during life and then interred with the deceased, while other items could have been made specifically as grave goods. In fact, there is an alternative hypothesis about these artifacts. Some scholars believe they might have been hair clasps, rather than knucklebones. Ask students to analyze the design of the artifacts, then make a persuasive case about which hypothesis they believe, speculating about their use.
In the Iliad, Patroclus’s ghost recounts how as a youth he killed another boy in a “wrath over dice.” Competition—in the form of politics, athletics, and war—was a large part of ancient Greek life. How did playing games fit into this value system? Research and write about other examples of games in the ancient world.
Neils, J. and Oakley, J.H., eds., Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.