# Knitting Fans, Behold Some Awesome Ancient Roman Tech!

There’s this guy, you see, who knitted his way to a solution to an infamous problem in Roman history. This might be a bit premature (since academic journals haven’t weighed in yet), but I am persuaded that the mystery of the ancient Roman dodecahedrons has been solved. And why I’m persuaded affords a handy example for teaching how Bayesian reasoning works in making good historical inferences. [Update: This case likewise shows how Bayesian reasoning can incorporate new facts so as to change what’s likely: experts in the comments to this article subsequently persuaded me that a full accounting of the facts in my Bayesian model does not get as positive a result for this thesis as I had initially thought.]

### A What?

I suppose I should begin by explaining what a “mysterious ancient Roman dodecahedron” is. It’s not just any dodecahedron from ancient Rome (I’ll show you an unrelated example shortly), but a very peculiarly consistent oddity that no one has been able to explain (mainly because no writing survives mentioning it). It’s a common object. Some hundred or so have been found, originating in the 2nd century A.D. and spanning a couple of centuries afterward. But only in France and northern and eastern Europe. It’s weird looking. And has peculiar features. Some are of stone manufacture, but most are cast bronze.

Some typical examples (one from Wikipedia, another from the Birmingham Musem) are shown to the right. Each is a twelve-sided hollow object, the sides generally symmetrical (an isohedron, so it looks a little like a twelve-sided die, something old-school role-playing-gamers will recognize), but every side has a circular hole in it, and the holes are different sizes, but the pattern of sizes (the sequence and arrangement) is the same on every object, even though the size of the object (and thus size of the holes) varies considerably, from kind of tiny (one and a half inches total diameter) to about the size of what would have then been a large adult fist (a little over four inches). The holes also sometimes have a sequence of parallel carved rings around them (sort of like gutters or guidelines in the face of the object), but many do not, so these appear to be a decorative flourish (a typical accent found in Roman tech of the time, where common utilitarian objects can be prettied up with some artsy flourishes like that).

But importantly, every corner of these objects has a solid knob sticking out of it, a bollard narrower at its base than at its tip (many of these just look like attached spheres), for twenty knobs in all. This most of all prevents the twelve-sided die analogy from quite being right, that plus the fact that the holes being of different size means each face has a different weight. They also aren’t inscribed with anything…a fact that is far more crucial to determining their purpose than you might at first think.

Just search “Roman dedocahedron” in Google Images and you’ll find dozens of examples. And yet…

### What’s It For?

No one really knows. Many theories have been proposed, often argued in elaborate fashion. Wikipedia has an entry on them (but to avoid spoilers, don’t read that just yet) and lists the hypotheses so far explored as “candlestick holders; dice; survey instruments; devices for determining the optimal sowing date for winter grain; that they were used to calibrate water pipes; and army standard bases.”

The main problem with most of these hypotheses is that they all predict the same thing. For example, the “survey instrument” and “solar calendar” theories are based on coincidences of the angles produced by the holes in these dodecahedrons, but those coincidences would be there no matter what the object was used for–as already exemplified by the fact that the same angles lead to both proposed functions, perspectival surveying and calendrics. Despite those having nothing to do with each other.

Whatever function the objects had, they would always have these features. In Bayesian terms, that means the probability of these objects having these features if they weren’t built for either purpose is virtually 100%. Which renders that fact useless as evidence. What counts as evidence is a fact that is improbable on alternative theories, not a fact that is entirely expected on just about any theory you try to propose (atheists will find that complaint familiar…when we expect an outcome anyway, whether there be a God or not, it can’t count as evidence for God).

Before I survey the proposed theories, if you want a delightful surprise before I spoil it, take a moment and watch the video embedded here (sorry, there’s no transcript or narration, so if you are visually impaired, just keep reading along here, I’ll fill you in). That’s the correct solution. I’m fairly certain. You won’t start to realize what it is until more than halfway through the video. But once you’ve enjoyed that surprise, let’s see what theories that solution is competing with…

### Surveying Instrument?

Apart from what I already mentioned, the surveying-instrument theory (defended by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna of the Department of Applied Science and Technology at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy) requires users of the object to constantly use elaborate and time-consuming math, when in fact that math could have been done in advance and its results carved directly on the object. In other words, if someone were using this object for that purpose, the instruction manual would be written on it (as it was on the Antikythera computer). You wouldn’t have to do the math. The results of it would be part of the engraving on each object, so you could immediately make use of it. This is especially the case because the objects vary so much in size, necessitating engraving this data directly on each. That we don’t observe any such engravings is thus not 100% expected but in fact very improbable on Sparavigna’s theory. So the angular coincidences she documents, which she mistakes as evidence for her theory, actually weighs considerably against her theory.

That plus the fact that these objects appear to have been strangely limited geographically to colder climates (a fact her theory doesn’t explain), and we actually have several textbooks from antiquity on surveying techniques and instruments, and none mention any device like this. Two more facts that are improbable on her theory. Her theory would instead predict they would be everywhere, and get mention in books about surveying and instrumentation (or at least similar techniques would). In Bayesian terms, that means her theory entails P(~e|h), the probability of the contrary evidence, is getting again close to 100%, which entails P(e|h), the actual probability of the evidence, which equals 1 – P(~e|h), is getting again close to zero (Proving History, pp. 230, 255-56, 302 n.13). In fact we already know what ancient Roman dioptras looked like. They didn’t look like this. They were in fact far more versatile, sophisticated, and easier to use. Whereas any object with differently sized holes along a symmetrical axis can be used by a mathematician as a simple makeshift diopter–regardless of what it was built for.

### Calendar?

Similarly, the calendrical theory requires a procedure that is so absurdly elaborate as to be well beyond comical. This you can see by looking at the procedure proposed by G.M.C. Wagemans (search his article for the words “It works as followed” to see the nine steps one must take, each already kind of ridiculously elaborate, but taken together, his theory parodies itself). His article has many uses, though, e.g. he catalogs many examples of these objects and plots their geographical location and discusses the archaeological circumstances each was found in and so on. He himself notes that the objects, if used for the purpose he imagines (determining when to begin sowing crops), don’t work very well (their accuracy is kind of shit). Which is improbable on his theory, considering the Romans had far simpler, more advanced, and more accurate ways of doing the same thing. You don’t buy an absurdly expensive screwdriver to hammer nails, when you already have really excellent and affordable hammers (see Roman sundials).

Indeed, the Romans had portable cylinder dials that were not only highly accurate, and did far more things than just tell you when to plant crops, but that could fit in your pocket and weighed next to nothing (being carved from bone, also a far cheaper material than bronze). Moreover, everyone needed to know when to plant crops–everyone, everywhere. Why buy your own little crappy way of doing that, when whole towns routinely invested in highly effective public calendars for the purpose? Anyone who wanted to know planting season just had to take a donkey downtown. And if for some reason you needed your own sundial, you would just get one of those–or even one of the pocket ones. It’s extremely improbable that anyone was using the dodecahedrons do do a worse job, at greater expense, and with vastly more difficulty, than they could already do with the tech at hand. An extraordinarily low P(e|h) thus results, spelling doom for this hypothesis. Making this an extraordinary claim…without extraordinary evidence.

### Volumeter?

John Ladd has attempted to argue the objects were what we would call a volumeter: any symmetrical object inserted into one axis would have a known displacement of water (and thus a known volume and density). Romans had volumeters (mensa ponderaria, to the right is an example recovered from Pompeii), but this object can’t have had this function for the same reason it can’t have been a surveying instrument: the objects vary enormously in size, so one would have had to engrave each axis of one with its volumetric values. Moreover, the knobs ruin the geometric value of the object for this purpose (by elevating it needlessly when immersed in water). This also doesn’t explain the geographic distribution, or peculiar variation in the shape of the circles (always the same pattern, yet the objects, and thus their holes, are never the same size). And so on. Again, all this is improbable on his theory, or not made probable by it. That makes his theory a bad explanation.

### Pipe Calibrator?

Same problem. The objects vary so much in size, the calibrations would have to be inscribed or etched on each example. Otherwise, what are you calibrating to? Moreover, one would have had no use for this kind of a calibrator. Pipes were cast, and this object would have no use in molding a cast. This object could only tell you the size of a pipe that was already manufactured. Which you could tell just by looking at the pipe. You wouldn’t need an instrument like this. This also doesn’t explain the geographic distribution. And most importantly, this theory simply doesn’t explain the twenty knobs. It thus again doesn’t get a high P(e|h) but in fact a low one. So it’s not a good explanation.

### Candle Stand?

This theory is based on a single example having been found with some melted wax in it. But that’s rather like finding some melted wax in a coke bottle and inferring coke bottles were designed as candle holders. Even if someone used one of these objects as a makeshift candle holder, that doesn’t tell us what it was actually designed for (and wax being in one doesn’t even mean it was used that way; just that some wax object was nearby it that melted). If these objects were designed to hold candles, all or most would have traces of wax all over them. One should also note that, on this theory, the smallest dodecahedrons entail improbably thin candlesticks.

And on top of all that, who makes a candle holder that ensures the wax leaks right out the bottom? And that the candlelight gets blocked by the housing and no longer held up by it when it burns low? We know what candle holders typically look like. It’s not this. See the image to the right (as a typical design): the tray is made to collect melted wax (not let it seep through), and the stand elevates the candle so that when the candle burns low, the flame remains elevated and unobstructed. (Incidentally, glass and shell and mica housings, all transparent to light, were then used when one wanted to shield a flame from wind; such tech is already evident from the 1st century, with crushed examples recovered from Pompeii.) So none of the design aspects of the dodecahedrons are expected on this theory, but quite the opposite. So again we have a high P(~e|h), which entails a low P(e|h), which makes for evidence against the theory.

### Army Standard Bases?

A non-starter. They are too small and weak for such a purpose. Roman standards were enormous, with an enormously heavy headpiece atop a very long pole (to maximize visibility at a distance). These objects are tiny little things sitting close to the floor with a distance between holes for supporting an object (if such they did) smaller than a single human hand. Do the math on that. The evidence’s improbability on this theory is therefore off the charts. Those pesky laws of physics, you see. One thing the ancients knew well was the law of leverage. It was indeed the first mathematical law they discovered and explained.

### Dice?

Likewise improbable. The holes make it non-random (each side weighs differently and thus does not have an equal chance of coming up). But more importantly, a game randomizer would not need the twenty knobs. Nor would it need the holes–it would instead be inscribed with numbers, letters, or signs. For in fact we have many examples of dodecahedrons used as game randomizers from ancient Rome. And they look like this (see image to the right). They do not look like those mysterious dodecahedrons. So this theory just does not make the evidence likely, nor does it correspond to the prior probability derived from past cases (other dodecahedral game randomizers).

### Religious Objects?

When in doubt, always punt to “some sort of unfathomable religious significance.” Or so the bad rule of thumb goes. In fact, the objects have not been found in association with religious objects or areas in any significant frequency to justify this hypothesis. And the design is too consistent and specific over a large geographic area. It appears to have a utilitarian function. Not a religious one. Again, we have a low P(e|h), not least because this is, like “God did it,” a non-explanation. For no one can deduce (i.e. make probable) any of the features of the object from this theory.

### Glove Knitter?

Yeah. A template for knitting gloves.

This one is probably correct.

It explains every single feature of the object common to all specimens. It explains the knobs (they hold yarn loops during construction), the hollowness (to fit a ball of yarn), the size variance (small for babies, large for men, and all sizes in between–but no sizes smaller, no sizes larger), the symmetry (as knitters will attest, an asymmetrical template would get you a wonky knit glove), the number of holes (two for inserting and manipulating the ball of yarn, two sets of five more holes for knitting two pairs of gloves of five fingers each), and most importantly, the peculiar sequence of hole sizes on each object: they run large, medium, large, medium, small on one half, then mirror that with small, medium, large, medium, large. Which is exactly what fingers do: thumb is large, index finger is medium, middle finger is a little larger than the index finger, the ring finger is smaller again, and the pinky is the smallest; and the sequence is mirrored for the left hand and right hand.

And you know what else it explains? Why these objects are only found geographically in colder climes.

The solution was discovered by amateur Martin Hallett, who printed his own dodecahedron using a 3D printer, and toyed around with it. Then saw how it worked. And knitted some gloves with it. Here is some background, and again the video, showing how it works (it’s incredibly simple, and from a design perspective, a brilliant invention).

No feature common across all specimens is improbable on this theory, but in fact exactly expected. Yet every single one is in fact very improbable on any other theory but this one. The odd geographical distribution is also highly probable. So here the probabilities are reversed: P(e|h) is close to 100% and P(e|~h) is pretty close to zero for any alternative, making a ratio of at least 100 to 1 if not thousands to one, in favor of this theory over all contenders.

We’ve been sitting on super-clever, pagan-invented glove knitting templates for decades, and never knew it.

Update: Or not. There are still some sticking points with this theory. See the comments below for discussion of the issues. The same logic applied to the other solutions could dial back the probability of this solution.

1. Gerard O says

One aspect of this story that is worth more exploration is the post-Roman history of glove making. Have similar ideas occurred to other cultures? If not, what methods have been used for glove making?

• says

This is something I would like to know more about. Indeed, even knowing more about modern glove knitting would be helpful. If anyone with expertise in either blogs their thoughts about this, I’d love to have those links posted in comments here. It might change my analysis.

A commenter on Facebook with knitting experience has said this device presents an inefficient way of making crappy gloves, which may or may not be true. One really can’t judge by the video, since a craftsman with thousands of hours on a device will perform vastly better than an amateur just now experimenting with it two thousand years removed, and the tech was designed for the craftsman not the amateur; hence similarly crappy output would result from using ancient looms and other devices, but that isn’t an argument against their having been designed as such. But if, for example, there are very obviously better ways of doing it (so obvious that it would be improbable that the Romans weren’t using it; I realize this is not a simple thing to argue since what we think is obvious won’t necessarily have been), then that would be a fact that would count against this theory (adding it as a new fact, it would be more probable on alternative theories than on this one that this device would be used for knitting gloves when better tech was being used already–indeed, that’s the very point I make about some of those alternatives).

2. Brucc says

Fantastic analysis.

So, in these centuries, would this knitting have been done by everyone in those climates, or only by women?

If ancient knitting were thought of as women’s work, that might also support the observation that this was not in written records. Male surveyors were presumably expected to make written notes, while knitters of any gender might be able to live their lives without being literate. Thus, no writing on the objects, and no writings or other records on the use of woman- and servant-stuff, in ancient thinking. Does this fit?

• says

In general, one should not assume only women knitted (in some cultures, it could have been that only men did; in others, both genders; or like cooking in the early 20th century, women predominately did it domestically but men predominately did it professionally; and so on). I have not read up on Greco-Roman (or Germano-Celtic) knitting, so I don’t know what the norm was in that context.

Also, your theory sounds attractive, but doesn’t match other cases.

For example, we have discovered remarkably consistent mining design and technologies (including machinery) across the whole Roman Empire, so much so that it is impossible this was being done without the dissemination of standardized written manuals. It’s just an accident of what Medieval Christians thought important that none were preserved. (And one hardly need point out that designing and building mines and mining equipment was not likely to be women’s work at all, much less predominately.)

Likewise, we have recovered all over the Empire cylinder block water pumps (which would have to have been crank-shaft operated), carved from wood, which exhibit considerable standardization. Yet they are nowhere mentioned anywhere in extant literature. Yet we can be reasonably certain that these were built and used predominately by men (as engineers and architects). It has been argued that they too must have had written manuals behind them (and I would agree that’s extremely probable). They just didn’t survive the Middle Ages.

Pretty much most technical literature didn’t survive the Middle Ages. So it’s non-survival is not good evidence of a conclusion like you suggest. In Bayesian terms, its non-survival is just about as likely on alternative explanations.

3. katchen says

Much as I like the theory, and would love to know what these thingamiwatzits are, what bothers me about it is that the different sized holes would not produce different sized tubes for the fingers and thumbs. Each tube would be formed of only five stitches; as the knobs have the same spacing on each face, the stitches produced would be at the same gauge – the finished tubes would all be the same size regardless of the size of hole they were fed through.

In order to produce tubes of different widths, there would have to be different numbers of knobs* on each face, so there were more stitches for thumbs and less for fingers.

*Different sized tubes could be made with the same numbers of knobs/stitches, but the knobs would have to be spaced differently on each face, and the resulting tubes would be knit at different gauges, which is impractical.

• says

It’s hard to tell if that’s what’s really happening in this video. Or what one must do. There are many different ways to use the knobs available. For example, someone suggested the technique used might have been adapted from nalbinding, which differs from standard knitting, and your point might not hold for that (e.g. each finger could be done separately, with different sized yarn, or turned on the frame while worked, etc.).

Of course, we would want to know how Hallett employed the hole size. If you read the comments (there, as well as on linked knitting sites), there are different opinions from knitters as to how one would have actually used the knobs and what tool to use and whether the form was for making glove liners rather than the gloves themselves. But I think the one consistent objection is that the knobs should differ in number, and not the holes differ in size. So that would count as evidence against the theory. Unless someone can discern a different way of using the knobs to knit the tubes.

(Notably, the comments also show even more hypotheses being invented, from ball gauge to wire loom to [on another site] ice spile, which creates an amusing analogy to Jesus studies: there seem to be almost as many theories as theorists, and all work so well yet clearly almost all must be false…so something is amiss with their methodology.)

• Phillip Hallam-Baker says

I think it more likely that the device is used to assemble a glove from pre-knitted fingers.

Each finger would be knitted and cast off separately, then placed on the form. The holes help get the right fingers in the right places.

The fingers don’t need five stitches, the form is merely used to hold the fingers in alignment while they are sewn or knitted together. So in a workshop it would serve the purpose of enabling the knitting work to be divided into a simpler task (making fingers) and a more expert task (joining the fingers to make a glove).

A secondary function would be tracking progress, the less expert knitters would likely be given a dodecahedron to work on, they have to bring it back filled in some span of time.

A tertiary function of the holes might be for sizing the customer since the gloves are presumably made to order and custom fitted. Hard to see why there would be a need for a thumbhole otherwise. I don’t know about you but I have the opposable model which is rather a long way from the fingers. But that is fine as the template joining up in a loop would be a pain otherwise.

As for the lack of documentation, the artifact is its documentation. If you go to the UK today you will still see some chemists display carboys of purple and yellow liquids that were used in Victorian times to demonstrate expertise in preparing chemicals, in the days before modern dyes it was hard to get them right. If people associate fine glove making with having their fingers sized using a dodecahedron then after a while they will proliferate as a trade artifact even if the functional value is marginal. They might even migrate into a symbol of the trade even after their practical use was long since discontinued. The mortar and pestle is a symbol of the apothecary trade because people look good using one, not because it is their most useful tool.

4. jste says

only in France and northern and eastern Europe.

Funny, when we were kids, we learnt this technique calls “French knitting”. It’s apparently also called spool knitting. Get a tube, tape some paddle pop sticks to it, wrap the wool around each peg, wrap it again, then pull off the bottom loop. Rinse repeat.

Hindsight’s 20/20 and all that, but it really took decades for someone to notice the resemblance?

5. Jeff Engel says

Two predictions occur to me on this hypothesis – well, things that, on it, are much more probable than not at least:

1 – That some of the features (the knobs, the holes, a hollow space for the wool, etc.) would be common to other knitting devices in at least that region and around that time. It’s not likely to be a device that cropped up completely formed all on its own, without anything similar to it for similar uses in nearby times and areas.

2 – That _if_ there are documents describing knitting tools in Roman Northern Europe of the first three centuries in thorough fashion, these would likely be mentioned.

Do those make sense? And any word on whether either of those predictions hold up, or if there simply isn’t the evidence to tell?

• says

Yes, those both make sense. As to (2), indeed we have nothing like that (unlike in the case of the surveying instrument theory), so we can’t say as to whether this was or wasn’t mentioned in such texts if any there were. As to (1), I think this consideration needs to be considered. It is one reason I would want to wait for an academic journal to weigh in on this. I would want to see what some Roman textiles experts had to say.

But there are two problems. One, of course, is that other knitting tools might also have gone unrecognized. I’ve seen knitting needle kits from the Roman period on display in museums. But not forms. Second, assuming there is nothing else comparable, one would think this argues against this appearing out of nowhere, but then this same improbability applies to all theories: no matter what this is, there are no parallels showing its development. So if this is a defect of this theory, it is a defect of all of them. And when the same improbability applies to all theories, all theories are equally good at explaining it. It therefore cannot be used to argue against any of them. This is an inverse application of the same point I made about a feature being equally good at explaining the same evidence rendering that feature of no value as evidence for any theory.

6. Kingasaurus says

Fascinating!

I had never seen nor heard of these objects before. Though on initially seeing them (and before reading), I thought the knobs very peculiar – and my first instinct was to think they were there to wrap or tie something around them. Though I never would have guessed anything as complex as the apparent answer, as I know little to nothing about knitting.

A vexing mystery solved is its own reward.

• says

I think that also has to be a component of any explanation–even if this explanation is incorrect, the knobs are too obviously tie points. That could still be wrong. But it’s where the prior probability is strongest, so it’s where I’d first look. Is there any other weaving purpose that would require the holes to exist, and form that consistent sizing pattern? There might be. But none is presently known.

7. Steve Watson says

Wool I never…

8. says

Gloves? Preposterous. It’s for making the tentacle parts of novelty Cthulhu balaclavas.

9. Steve Watson says

This is wonderful. Baalbek, the Brigantian Chariot, the Chinese Wheelbarrow. “The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

An education, as always.

Tah very much,
Steven C Watson

10. says

I do not understand what is and how you apply Bayes’ theorem, but if you intend to use it in the search for the historical Jesus with the same methodology used in this case, then I must say that you have little hope of arriving to a solution.

This device certainly is not a Glove Knitter.

• says

You need to work a little harder than that. You actually have to make an argument. Then whatever argument you make, I can model it with Bayes’ Theorem. And thereby confirm your objection holds (if it does; some may, per other comments here). That’s the whole point of Bayesian reasoning. To get somewhere. Just gainsaying people, that’s not even a method.

• says

No, I do not understand how can you assign a probability to a proposition. The probability is obtained by tending the frequency to infinity, it seems impossible that it can be defined on an idea or impression. This case has made you to assign a high probability to the Glove Knitter according to your rating not according to the average of the opinions of many different researchers. Only in this case you can assign a probability. In fact your considerations on the analyzed object, as far as correct, have led you to an incorrect result.
This is the proper use and meaning of the object: it is a rangefinder.
http://porto.polito.it/2497004/1/dodecaedro_romano.pdf

• says

I already explained in my article why that theory does not get high probabilities.

Just re-citing the paper I responded to is not a rebuttal.

• says

Excuse me, perhaps, because of my unfamiliarity with the English language I had not caught the reference to the instrument analyzed by Sparavigna.

I remain in my mind that the method illustrated by the Italian scholar is correct because the user had to memorize only six values, one for each pair of holes; there was no need of manual and calculations to determine the distance of an object of known height.

• says

Why make each user try to measure the object and run complex mathematical equations to estimate its rangefinding values (even if you just had to do it upon acquiring it six times), when you can just carve the rangefinding values on the object?

And so on. See my complete list of objections in the article. It’s attributes just aren’t all that probable on this theory. It’s no more likely than many other theories that justify the unusual sequence of holes.

11. Don Morgan says

This is an awesome post. It says so much about the proper way to unravel a mystery (no pun intended), and how we need to be vigilant against the foibles of the human mind. Specifically, that so many experts, who are presumably intelligent, decent people, can fall so in love with their own pet explanation of something that they will go to elaborate lengths to make it fit to evidence even when it clearly doesn’t. Landbridges vs. plate tectonics.

I’m curious to see what the reactions of the prononets of the alternate theories will be. Will they stick to their guns? It would be interesting if some of them did, and wholly expected that some will.

I’m not trying to trash anybody here, but this really underscores why we need Bayes so desperately. Smart people with big fat degrees are vulnerable to the same self deceptions that characterize the products of that quirky little kluge that is the homo sapien brain.

I’m a big fan of your Jesus historicity work, by the way, and eagerly awaiting the second book.

Cheers,
Don

• says

Just a note of caution, the mystery hasn’t been decisively unraveled yet. There’s a strong case, but there’s a lot more that needs to be examined first (hence my note at the top about this possibly being premature). And there could be arguments against this theory (which Bayes’ Theorem would also confirm; some have been proposed in comments here).

But also note, sort of one-upping your prediction, there are even more theories now than before…as this one has inspired yet more! (see other comments in this thread)

12. No Way says

Well the ethical stuff bores me, the math almost as much, but I think that I like the ancient tech as mush as the religion bashing. What a wonderful little history mystery. Everything about this is fascinating.

13. Menyambal says

Most interesting. I had not heard of these things before, and I love figuring out what things are and how they work.

I agree that all the other guesses are wrong, especially the volumetric measurement guy. I am enough of an engineer, still, to know that the Romans had no need of such precise measurements of things such as sling stones, that there were simpler ways to get them if they did, and that the shapes would have been useless for getting such precision.

But I don’t like the glove idea, either. It doesn’t convince me. Nor does it convince the knitters who commented on the vid. They even say that knitting was not known at the time.

My first objection is that a pair of templates shaped much more like hands, or even inside-out hands, would make more sense. The hole sizes don’t look like finger sizes, they vary too much. The spacing between fingers would be all wrong—look at the palm of your hand, the fingers are all jammed together, and the thumb is ‘way off there.

If they were glove templates, and sizes varied, we’d see matched sets of men’s, women’s and children’s sized templates together. Or did the glovers specialize in one size?

I know that shoes weren’t made in lefts and rights as recently as 1856 in this country, so I can’t see glovers getting all chiral. I would make a flat glove and let it work for either hand (switch hands when the palm wears thin), like disposable gloves are now.

Second, the hollow center of those things would be a bugger to carve or to cast. I can’t see making a hollow object if anything else would work. The things would not be cheap. Also, those holes look perfectly circular, which was not easy to do, back then.

The knobs do look like they were designed to take string or cord. The knitters object to them because the string is too hard to lift off. I am going to keep considering them.

Sorry, the glove thing leaves me cold (nor do I find the distribution related to temperature significant). I haven’t a good suggestion to offer instead, though.

I will keep thinking on it. Thanks for posting this.

• says

Some of these points may have merit. But not all.

It’s not true that knitting forms would have the form of hands. That’s not how knitting works. And knitted objects can be made loose and pulled taut, and yarn stretches (that’s why the result this guy effected actually worked, despite your concern). So those don’t really hold up as objections. The knob count argument is stronger (as I’ll note shortly).

But casting forms like this was easy. The Greeks mastered hollow bronze casting, and the Romans were regularly casting incredibly accurate bronze pipes to a tolerance of a fraction of a millimeter. Your claim that casting perfect circles was not easy is also false; this was the sort of thing they had pervasively mastered, and bronze instrumentation from antiquity is consistently precise and well-made, with far more amazing things than this…just consider their cataract needle, which was sharp as a needle but hollow, allowing one to insert it into a cornea and suck out the cataract; the Romans also invented the piston syringe.

In case you don’t know how hollow bronze casting works, you would make the interior out of clay, form the rest of it around that in wax, cut the holes with pre-finished (and thus perfectly shaped) die cutters (which whoever was making these things would have), drop the whole thing in wet clay which you let dry, then you pour in molten bronze. The wax evaporates, and you just remove the object from the clay. The sculpting skills of instrument makers was commensurate with classical artists of the time, and sculpting in wax is incredibly easy, and easy to make precise. Hence objects like this.

We also know cost is not a good argument. Craftsmen bought all manner of tools and machinery we would naively think were expensive; if one is manufacturing gloves for a market, this is precisely what you would invest in, and the most common investors were the previous owners of freed slaves, who often outfitted their clients with shops and equipment in exchange for a take of the profits; if it was at all expensive, that would explain why a craftsperson had to specialize in one glove size.

On the other hand, the varying hole size corresponds to varying human hand size. So per object that’s not unexpected. Each form matches one size. But it’s true that, unless cost did indeed force people to buy only one and service the market in that size, one should expect collections of these things to be found together, if in fact they have been found where they were used (i.e. if in any case there is sufficient reason to expect to have found a complete collection). That expectation is often not well founded in archaeology (especially for objects made of a material frequently melted for reuse–the fate of most bronze equipment and decor in antiquity in the Middle Ages–or looted, scattered, etc.), but it could be in any of the cases here. An expert in the field literature could test this. And though it is possible for the specialization thesis to be true (we know that happened, e.g. chandelier makers in ancient Italy specialized in their own piece, cities apart, and the parts were shipped and the complete product assembled in yet another location), that still requires an assumption, which we must allow to lower the probability of the thesis (Proving History, pp. 80-81).

I concur the correct solution probably requires understanding the knobs as tie points. But right now, all the other data only gain probability on the glove knitting theory. The strongest evidence against that is (so far as I can tell) the knob count is incongruous with the purpose, unless we are imagining the wrong technique (see comments previously in this thread).

• says

My entire book Proving History is my refutation. I am such a miraculous prophet, I was able to refute his claims before he even made them. That or he’s just repeating outdated ideas and not bothering to check whether they’ve been shown flawed (as my book is not the only one to have done so; I cite several others that do).

Note that his claim about the “we” passages in Acts is typical Christian apologetics, ignoring what critics have actually said (and their evidence) and pompously insisting it’s wrong. I address this with a note citing the literature in my new book, On the Historicity of Jesus (index, “we”). I also have a whole chapter in that extenstively debunking the claim that Acts is eyewitness history or even reliable at all.

• Scott Scheule says

Thanks. Do you mind telling us how you view the “we” passages? Do you hold to the explanation that they’re the convention for sea voyages, or that “Luke” copied them from another source, or that, with Ehrman, they were purposely put in to falsely imply that the author was an eyewitness? Or other?

I seem to remember in one of your debates you mentioned a source that was highly critical of the historical reliability of Luke-Acts. Do you recall what that was? If so, can you also name a particular source that makes the best case for historical reliability?

Many thanks.

• says

This thread really needs to be moved elsewhere. It’s off topic here. And WordPress doesn’t allow me to relocate comments to other threads. So I have moved my latest reply to a more fitting location, here.

• Scott Scheule says

Thanks, Richard.

14. MagpieChristine says

Does the video give any reason, aside from the existence of these things which we *assume* are for knitting gloves, for why the earliest dates for knitting should be moved so far? If it does, you aren’t mentioning it in this article. And, without that, I have to disagree with your statement that “No feature common across all specimens is improbable on this theory, but in fact exactly expected.” If we count the age of the dodecahedra as a feature it is improbable.

I’m not saying that I’m opposed to moving the date for when we assume knitting started. Nor am I saying that such a large jump is impossible, or that we can’t assume that this was used for knitting. But to push back the date that far, and then use that to say that an artifact was for knitting, is two large jumps, not one.

• says

That depends on what you mean by “knitting.” We have a few examples of knitted textiles from Roman antiquity, scraps of which have been recovered in Roman sites from as early as 200 AD. And so few survive, as a rule the earliest found won’t have been the earliest made. Indeed, we have examples of the same technique in use in pre-Roman times (as far back as the the Stone Age; cf. pp. 199-200). Thus it’s notable that we’ve recovered examples of needle kits from c. 200 AD, which appear to include knitting needles and hooks.

If one defines “knitting” narrowly as using two needles, as some will do, then indeed that first appears later, but notice in this video Hallet is not using two needles, he is using one (and indeed a hook may have been more likely). The earliest single-needle knitting technique is known as nalbinding. And that’s what we have evidence of going way back.

So there is nothing about this that requires pushing back the time. The only thing that is unusual is the use of a knob frame. Of course there always has to be a first of a thing. But see my earlier comment in this thread about the question of contextualizing an innovation like this (if such it was).

• MagpieChristine says

If Hallet is using nalbinding and not knitting that would really be the missing piece of information from the video that didn’t make it to the transcript. I’d say that a spool-knitter like technique is more like knitting than like nalbinding (this is literally the first time that I’ve heard anyone who knows what they’re talking about describe nalbinding as knitting), so it still seems a bit odd to me, but a lot more plausible.

• says

That’s a valid point. The technical distinction of two-needle knitting from one-needle knitting is lost on most people who just know knitting as weaving yarn with an eyeless needle. I’d say that is more of a colloquial vs. technical vocabulary issue (people using words in different ways, some looser than others). But it’s always worth pointing out the technical.

15. L.Long says

Now there is some really cool science-playing-thinking to solve an interesting puzzle.

16. says

Menyambai wrote: But I don’t like the glove idea, either. It doesn’t convince me. Nor does it convince the knitters who commented on the vid. They even say that knitting was not known at the time.

I understand that knitting was developed from fishing-net-making, which is very ancient… I find it hard to believe that knitting was not known.

If they were glove templates, and sizes varied, we’d see matched sets of men’s, women’s and children’s sized templates together. Or did the glovers specialize in one size?

The surviving examples are in a variety of sizes. The fact that we may not find sets of such things does not imply that they did not exist. They could easily have been destroyed, or the bronze recycled into something else.

I know that shoes weren’t made in lefts and rights as recently as 1856 in this country, so I can’t see glovers getting all chiral. I would make a flat glove and let it work for either hand (switch hands when the palm wears thin), like disposable gloves are now.

Watching the video, it didn’t look like it was chiral to me. It looked flat. Why do you believe that the glove was “handed”?

[T]he hollow center of those things would be a bugger to carve or to cast. I can’t see making a hollow object if anything else would work.

It seems to me that if it was solid and the fingers “stuck out” as they were being knitted it would get in the way of the knitting. So perhaps nothing else WOULD work.

• says

I concur with all that, but for one item: Menyambai’s point about handedness comes from the sequencing of hole sizes being handed (a point I made in the article above, and the main reason Hallet thought this might have something to do with hands). I think it’s the worst kind of argument to say they wouldn’t make handed gloves. That is condescending to ancient technologists and craftsmen, assuming they were all lazy and uncreative and uninterested in things we find worthwhile. In actual fact, there is a vast list of things the Greeks and Romans invented, that the Medieval Christians forgot about, and thus had to be reinvented, many only in relatively modern times. I list many of them in my discussion here (skip to the section heading “Medieval Christians Invented Everything”).

17. ceesays says

i’m a knitter, and there’s just so much about that video that makes me shake my head. why make this complicated doohickey that produces tubes with sloppy gauge at a slower rate than i could do with string and a collection of sticks with two pointy ends, with much finer yarn and more even tension?

• says

Two-needle knitting hadn’t been invented yet. This is nalbinding, a different kind of knitting than you are used to (see comments above for links). As for the rest, we don’t know what tools were used (knitting hooks?) or what yarn (thick? thin?) or doubling (one tube knitted within another) and so on. And craftspeople with thousands of hours experience will vastly outperform someone who has never knitted before in their life (like Hallet), much less with a specific tool like this.

So those considerations are not very weighty.

There are considerations that weigh against it, though. They’ve come up in comments elsewhere here.

18. sqlrob says

I’m surprised you use “non-random” to lower the priors of dice as much as you do. There are plenty of games that are “non-random”
– Anything that uses the sum of two dice
– Red / Black / Green on roulette
– Jokers in a deck of cards
– Any dice game that uses custom pips or a chart

• says

Yes, but you can predict the odds on those systems–they are even carefully designed for that purpose. It’s less likely someone would create a randomizer whose bias they can’t predict. That’s like saying you have loaded dice, but you don’t know how they are loaded.

So sure, someone might make a conspicuously and unpredictably loaded die. It’s just not highly probable–it requires ad hoc assumptions contrary to normal human behavior.

Add to that the fact that the faces aren’t labeled (and thus contradict all ancient precedent, and almost all human practice with multi-faced randomizers) and you get some low odds on that theory.

• corwyn says

The sum of two dice is just as random as one die. It is a different distribution, but it is still random. The same applies to your other examples.

19. Tsu Dho Nimh says

I’m not convinced of the glove making, because a 5-stitch finger is silly.

However, how about for knitting silver or gold wire in different sizes? The vikings did it.

• says

That’s been suggested, but there appear to be defects with that theory as well (see comments elsewhere in this thread).

20. gingerbaker says

What troubles me about the glove-knitting hypothesis is that the pentagons are all the same size with the “pegs” always at the corner points. This means that the size of the knitted stitch will be the same for all the fingers – the pinkies would have the same size knit as the middle fingers. This I would think would be far from ideal, because pinkies would be more likely to poke through a mesh size that would work OK for a thumb. Better perhaps would have been to place the pegs for the smaller holes closer to the holes rather than always having the pegs at the corners of each pentagon.

And the fact that these objects were cast makes my objection – if it holds any water in the first place – stronger, I would think. Placing the pegs at different distances relative to the hole size they surrounded would be a pain in the neck to manufacture by hand. But, since they are cast, you only have to fabricate the more difficult design once, so why would cast objects not be optimized for their function?

I also do not see how the different diameters of the holes were used in the video in order to to produce different diameters of knitted tubes – they all seemed very similar, but perhaps I missed something. How the diameters worked to impose a constraint of the knitted tubes was not evident or explained at all either. Nor did the design do anything to help regulate the length of each knitted finger.

And why the enormous difference in sizes of these objects? How does one use one of these as a knitter when the total diameter of the object is only 1.5 inches? How would such tiny holes possibly be used?

What the pegs DO seem to do very well indeed is to absolutely insure stability of the object on a flat surface, which the native object without pegs would not be able to do – each facet seems rounded somewhat, not absolutely flat. So, now we have an object that will always sit flat with a different size hole available straight up or at an angle. Don’t know what that implies, if anything, but I am curious whether the diameter of the hole on the top matches the diameter of the hole on the bottom?

Lovely puzzle!

• says

Indeed. The peg arrangement appears to be the one thing that is significantly improbable on the glove knitting hypothesis. Unless there is a technique to it we’re not seeing. For now I think that reduces the probability of this hypothesis to the unenviable status of the least worst theory.

• Jeff Engel says

If the pegs are there as feet to keep the thing flat on a surface, wouldn’t points instead of rounded knobs be simpler to cast, break less, and be at least as stable? If so, then there’s a bit more reason to suppose that the pegs are there to serve as hooks of some kind.

• says

I would think the reverse. A bronzework specialist could be asked about this. But larger more generalized bollards I would predict are easier to cast and sturdier.

• says

Indeed. The peg arrangement appears to be the one thing that is significantly improbable on the glove knitting hypothesis. Unless there is a technique to it we’re not seeing. For now I think that reduces the probability of this hypothesis to the unenviable status of the least worst theory.

(Although re: baby-sized forms would be used by using cogs the size of the intended fingers, if any such thing were needed; and though hollow casting was done with wax molds and clay, not using permanent dies, there are a number of tools one can use to standardize a wax sculpture and a clay form, as we know they did from other bronze cast tools, so your point stands: the knobs can’t be so placed unless that is where they wanted them.)

The stability argument is employed by advocates for the surveying instrument (in particular, artillery range-finder) theory. But that theory faces even more fatal objections than the knitting one. Likewise the ball gauge theory. It would also match as equally likely the tie-point assumption (which I previously in comments suggested is most likely; now I’m not sure).

One thing that hasn’t been considered (oddly despite related theories being trumpeted, e.g. candle holder and military standard holder) is that this is a tool for holding upright different cylindrical objects of varying size, which objects would not be candles, nor as tall and heavy as standards, but something that is the actual function of the object, e.g. for holding up a surveying instrument, and not the surveying instrument itself. But we would need more than speculation to know.

• corwyn says

The size of the knitted object is NOT dependent on the placement of the pegs. once the incipient stitch is removed from the peg, it is drawn up tight, removing where it started from the variables determining size of the finished product. It is dependent on the number of pegs, the size of the material, the particular stitch employed, and the tightness it is drawn up to.

It would seem possible to make different sized fingers based on varying those things, and use the holes as a pattern.

21. Carol Lynn says

It looks like something that would be used more for trichinopoly (also called Viking wire weaving) chain than fiber – but again it has the problem of each side having the same number of knobs and the same size of working area. If a different size of rod is put in the holes, it might be possible wire weave different gauge wire around the different size holes to get different sized chain. Although the way it would have to be done is backwards of the way I was taught to do that kind of weaving and I’m not sure off the top of my head if that is even possible. Geometry is also not my strong suit, so I can’t tell if the same size holes are opposite each other – or indeed if any of the holes are opposite each other. If they are, it is ‘obvious’ that it could be used as a pull through for the chain to narrow it down and make it flexible after it was woven. Several sizes of holes are needed for that, though why there would be four holes the same size… I’d look for any evidence of wear on the sides of the holes before I ruled it out.

22. Menyambal says

Thanks for the feedback on my comment, Richard. I appreciate the new information, and have read several of your linked posts. Which are fascinating.

I have been focusing on the dodecahedrons since yesterday morning, and am chasing my own idea. I need to do some more work on it before sharing.

I still dislike the glove idea, and want to put two more objections out. First, the number of holes does not match the number of fingers. Saying that the extra two are for the ball of wool or something, without saying which holes or what else, isn’t good to me. (Also, if I was making a glove template like this, I would double up on at least one of the holes—say the thumb could be used for each hand).

Second, the idea that the hole progression can be determined is a little odd. Say you start with a biggest hole. Around it are five other holes—pick the one you choose to call the forefinger hole. Now, going straight on across that hole is impossible, you have to go left or right either a little or a lot (72 degrees or 108, my head says). So it is hard to say which hole is next. But someone built their idea on that progression.

23. says

I can confirm that a dodecahedron has flat sides opposite each other. I just pulled a twelve-sided die out of my dice bag and checked.

What about the arrangement of the holes? Are there big holes opposite each other, with small holes ditto, or are big holes opposite small holes? If it is big opposite small, could that imply that it is intended to hold a tapering rod?

24. Matthew North says

If these were any of the other proposed tools, (volumeter, Pipe calibrator, surveying tool, etc.) you’d especially find these all over the parts of the Roman Empire that were warm, dry and arid. Seems to me, this is the strongest indication that it was a knitting tool for gloves. Martin Hallett made the glove as a complete novice. Imagine what an expert ancient Roman glove maker could do. He should be commended for actually trying to knit with them. Has any archeologist of ancient Rome ever bothered to do this? Do they just find them catalog them and then just speculate about their use?

• says

So far, no expert in the objects has thought of trying this particular theory out (it’s relatively new). And very few have even ventured a theory as to what they were for (some will offer guesses at possibilities but admit they are speculative).

25. says

I think that this could, in theory, be some sort of knitting device, but I agree that it’s unlikely to be used for gloves. You could make something knitters now call, i-cord, in which a small number of stitches are worked around a narrow circumference. There are tools called spool knitters which work just like this. A small number of pegs are placed atop a tube, and the user knits the cord, pulling it down through the center of the tube.

The different sized holes would accommodate different thickness of yarn/thread/leather/whatever, produce any number of practical cords.

That said, I image this would be terribly uncomfortable to hold for an extended period of time. I wonder if it fit on top of something so you wouldn’t have to grip all those pegs while you maneuver the tool.

26. says

I’m not a knitter, but it seems awfuly impractical to stuff the glove-fingers into these holes, pretty much regardless of any technique you might imagine. It’s not like the fingers are getting in the way, and as you knit the glove you’d surely want to see how the fingers shape up. Also, even if you can imagine a technique to somehow use the holes to calibrate finger diameters (and this technique currently seems to be a conjecture only) some of these holes seem to be way too big for fingers. And while you might want to have a big hole for putting a loop of yarn inside – not a crazy idea – you then wouldn’t want to have an equally big hole on the other side where the yarn loop will instantly fall through. And that seems to be the design.

My suggestion: Display stand/vase

Others already suggested that the knobs are there to make the object stable. I would also suggest that the ornamental design supports the idea that this is an ornamental object, something meant to be displayed. Sure, a tool could also be designed, but surely that possibility does not score quite as well in a bayesian argument.

Now, what is the functional property of these objects, if we assume they are meant to be used standing? Well, it seems to me that this is to have an object that can be easily adjusted to have a differently sized hole pointing upward. The holes that are not pointing upward have strange angles that do not look particularly usable, but the one pointing upward does. Something that seems to support this theory is that it seems to me – from googled images – that the opposite holes have the same size. So whatever hole is pointing upwards would have a matching hole at the bottom.

Now, the theory of using it as a candlestick fits this, but it does not really explain why the holes would be of different sizes. Yes, surely there were differently sized candles, but I’m sure they were made in standard sizes and you would easily get candles that fit your candlesticks.

So, the question is then: what ornamental object is it that we want to have standing on a table, and which comes in different and unpredictable diameters? My best idea is a small bouquet or arrangement of flowers. An argument against this would be that some seem to be a bit on the small side, but not impossibly so. Another counter-argument might be that there is nowhere to pour the water. But if we imagine this to be a dinner display object, water is not a necessity. Preserving the flowers beyond the duration of the feast might not have been a concern at all. All we need is something that lets us keep the flower arrangement erect at the table. This seems to fit with all the characteristics of the object: the differently sized holes, the heavy material used, the knobs to make it stable (and to leave some space belowe the bottom hole), the ornamental design. As for the geographical distribution, well this is easily explained by assuming the thing became fashionable in a limited area only and for a limited period of time.

• says

That seems a bit of a stretch. A complex and elaborately designed bronze sphere…for displaying flowers? They had tons of more suitable objects for that (vases of every variety). And it would be bizarre to have a 1.5 inch flower holder…with different sized hole axes. That’s weirdly specific for such a small scale. It could be that the device was intended to present flowers through every hole, and the variation in hole size had some visual effect. But that’s still quite ad hoc (we’re making a lot of assumptions). Moreover, 200 years is not a “limited period of time” as fashions go. So its geographical specificity also remains weird. In antiquity it would be strange to have a fashion so stalwart…that only ever existed in cold climates.

So, conceivable, but still not all that more probable than alternatives, IMO.

• says

I would argue that most complex and elaborate artefacts that we have are in fact decorative objects, not advanced tech. I think there is a danger of falling into a trap: clearly, it would be more exciting if the object serves some elaborate, advanced function, than if it was something as simple as a vase. But just because we would prefer such a solution, it is not rational to assume that must be so. Case in point: the over-elaborate theories about how to use the objects for advanced measuring.

I would argue that absolutely everything about these objects save for one feature fits perfectly into a purely or mostly ornamental design. The sole exception is the difference in hole sizes, which does not appear to be decorative, but functional. Thus, I think the solution to the problem must explain this detail well, while all other features can be accidental.

I agree that 1.5 inches is on the small side to make a vase plausible (although, ditto for a glove). But such vases can be found today. I would assume that the trend would then have started with larger vases and that the differently sized holes would become a core feature of the design. And I don’t think that is of no interest even for a tiny vase, if you want to fit a single stalk you need a small hole or the flower will not stand upright, but for even a tiny bouquet you may want to fit a number of stalks.

As for arranging flowers in every direction, I think that intended use case would wholly nullify the reason for having holes of different sizes, so that would make for a terrible explanation. All in all, I’m not at all confident about the vase hypothesis, but much more inclined to believe it was a display stand for some purpose – but it must then be a stand for something that could have unpredictable diameters. I checked up a bit more on the geometry and it seems that opposite holes have roughly the same diameter – eg a ‘large’ hole would have a ‘large’ opposite hole, though not necessarily the exact same diameter. To me, this supports the idea that something was inserted through the object.

I also disagree that 200 years is not a limited time for a fashion. That’s approximately what we see for instance for top hats, chopines (a type of platform shoe) or runestones. In the two latter cases we also have a similar geographical limitation that does not appear to have any rational basis. They just happened to become fashionable in a particular area, without spreading much outside.

27. MagpieChristine says

Having finally had the opportunity to watch the video, I would guess that if this is indeed for making gloves, it was used with a different technique than is shown. That’s a knitting-type fabric, which loses the advantage of nalbinding: like crochet, you will only lose one stitch at a time, so repairs would be a lot easier. With knitting, if you lose one stitch you get a run, and then you have to do a much larger repair. Given the previous comments about the fact that the different sized holes wouldn’t help adjust the finger size if they’re all five-stitch fingers, I’m fairly convinced that if this was for gloves it was more of a template than a spool-knitter.

28. canonicalkoi says

I don’t know about a “glove knitter”, but it certainly looks like it’d be useful for making different diameters of what we knitters call “idiot cord”**. It reminds me of a “spool knitter”–they used to be made from wooden spools with X number of finishing nails driven into the top, depending on how thick a cord you wanted to make. A quick Google search will get you a bunch of images of them and how they’re used. Different numbers of sticky-out-bits (technical term) and different hole sizes would allow for different sized cords to be made.

**I apologize if the name offends anyone–it’s been called that for a fairly long time. And there is a way to knit it using a single, double-pointed needle, but it’s easer and faster to do it with a spool.

29. says

I had another idea: soap holder. This would fit the sizes well, and explain the differently sized holes. When the soap is new you would use the biggest hole, and then simply turn the holder when the soap gets smaller. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry on soap also goes at least some way to explain the geographical evidence: it seems that accounts from this time indeed places soap usage to these areas. Celts and Germans are said to have used soap, Romans not so much.

Now if this was the case, perhaps we should expect there to be some soap residue on at least some of them. Although not necessarily commonly, since it’s so easy to remove and as soon as the objects became curious obscurities we might expect them to get cleaned and considered too precious to be used for the original purpose.

• says

Why the knobs? And why not just hold soap in a tray? And who buys an expensive, elaborate bronze thingy, an object that rusts, just to hold soap?

• says

The knobs: as others pointed out, to make it stable.

Why not in a tray: You mean a wooden tray? I’m sure that was the most common option. I’m sure tens of thousands of those trays are also not preserved.

Why expensive and elaborate: Because expensive, elaborate soap holders are popular to this day.

Why bronze that rusts: Bronze does not rust. It’s very good for wet things (ship fittings etc).

Why just to hold soap: Again, let us not be biased to thinking every elaborate, intriguing object must have a complicated technological use. Look around in your own home. Aren’t display objects some of the most elaborate objects you’ll see? Around here I have some high-precision metal puzzles, a couple of Hakone wooden puzzle boxes, one of those Taiwanese light-powered ‘impossible’ spinning globes and something that looks like a portrait of Jesus, but which morphs into the Devil when you walk up close. None of these things really serve any practical purpose.

Let’s say the Newton’s cradle had been briefly popular in ancient times, but was unknown today. I’m sure people would spend countless hours trying to figure out what it was good for. A dodecahedron like this is inherently intriguing. There is no strong reason we should even assume these objects had any purpose.

• says

Let me just correct one point: bronze most definitely “rusts” (it oxidizes like iron, only producing a different oxide). I crewed a ship. The amount of polishing of brass and bronze fittings you have to do is laughable. And we actually have anodized bronze as a technology (it’s just not always used; the ancients did not have this option). Most examples of bronze items from antiquity are badly corroded (and when found in water, destructively so–water is not bronze’s friend).

• says

I don’t think you were scrubbing to prevent copper oxide from forming. This is actually desirable as only a thin layer forms and then protects the object. My guess is that you either polished it because it was in the military where polishing absolutely everything, whether needed or not, seems to be standard procedure. Maybe that is a spillover from the dire need for cleanliness. Or it may be in order to prevent the dreaded ‘bronze disease’, which is not oxidization but a different process that involves chloride. It is much more likely to occur with seawater.

A soap holder would not (typically) be exposed to seawater and is probably more comparable to an outdoor object exposed to rain. And we do know that bronze was a common material for outdoor statues. The fact that fatal corrosion usually happens after thousands of years under seawater was probably outside the design specifications.

30. For me both fundamental ideas, knitting and fingergloves are highly improbable.

1. Knitting:
Knitting was not as popular as people might now think.
-It’s much more time consuming than weaving and sewing. Actually, gloves would be ideal for using up all the scraps. And man did they use up scraps. It would put the Amish to shame.
-It’s quite fragile. If you tear a hole in it the whole thing can come undone

2. Finger gloves
-If it’s cold, you don’t want finger gloves. You want fist glovs that keep your hands much warmer. We like finger gloves nowadays because we need to use our fine motor skills. Much better: lambskin with the wool attached.
-Nobody puts finger gloves on a baby. Apart from the warmth effect, it’s positively a pain in the ass. Babies don’t need to use their fingers.
-the geographical distribution doesn’t make sense. Italy has something known as the Alps, there are sky resorts in Southern Spain.

• corwyn says

We have examples of knitted gloves, so those objections aren’t definitive. A test for the hypothesis would be the number of stitches in each round of the fingers, if they were predominately 5 that would be evidence in favor.

Yes, baby finger gloves are no more useful than infant shoes…

31. steve w. says

I was wondering, has there been any study on the geographic distribution of these objects? My thought is that if we examine the archaeological context where each one of them was found, we can try to determine some of the major commonalities and differences between them. For instance are they all found in or near military outposts, are they mainly in homes or in communal buildings/areas, is there some ethnic group that’s distributed where these objects are found but not where they’re missing, are they only in either wealthy or poor homes or are they distributed throughout all economic levels, if they are near military outposts were there any ethnic groups that predominated those military units, etc.?

My thinking is that a study like that might provide enough more clues to try and figure out what those objects might be for.

32. corwyn says

So here the probabilities are reversed: P(e|h) is close to 100% and P(e|~h) is pretty close to zero for any alternative, making a ratio of at least 100 to 1 if not thousands to one, in favor of this theory over all contenders.

I worry that someone might read this as 100% to 0% implies a 100:1 ratio.

Roughly:
90% to 10% would be 20:1
97% to 3% would be 60:1
98% to 2% would be 100:1
99% to 1% would be 200:1
99.9% to 0.1% would be 2000:1
etc.

A lot of variability in the ratio is hiding in those “pretty close” labels.