History of Dice

Dice is all we do here at Awesome Dice, and as often as we talk about the bad old days of coloring in dice with crayons from the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, that was actually very recently in the history of dice. As it turns out, dice date back about as long as human civilization does, with the earliest dice found in Egyptian tombs and archeological digs in ancient Sumeria.

Here is a brief timeline of the history of dice. Below we’ll talk about some of the sources and debunk a couple of the false claims of oldest dice.

History of Dice Infographic

Sources

Because we’re big fans of good science here at Awesome Dice, here is the complete list of all dice facts from the History of Dice infographic along with the source for each piece of data. After this we’ll address some of the info that didn’t make it into this history, and why:

History of Dice

Dice have been used in games throughout the history of civilization, from ancient Egypt and Sumeria to Dungeons & Dragons.

  • 3100 BCE: Earliest hieroglyphics representing Senet boards found. Senet uses 2-sided playing pieces for randomization. Source: In Search of the Meaning of Senet.
  • 3000 BCE: Oldest confirmed dice found in a dig site in Turkey along with other game pieces. Date cited as “near” 3,000 BCE — could be a bit less. Source: Discovery News.
  • 3000 BCE: Holes are found punched into clay floors in the Mexico Tlacuachero site, similar to modern dice game score boards. Source: National Geographic.
  • 2600 BCE: Oldest confirmed dice. Pyramidal d4s found in the board game, the Royal Game of Ur from ancient Sumeria. Source: Brittish Museum.
  • 2000 BCE: Cubical dice found in Egyptian tombs. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 1333 BCE: Knucklebones — primitive dice shaped like animal bones — found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Source: Egyptian Museum Cairo
  • 1188 BCE: Approximate date that Sophocles said dice were invented by Palamedes during the siege of Troy. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 900 BCE: Tuscania dice found near Rome. Cubical dice with standard pip markings. Source: Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations
  • 600 BCE: Cubical dice found in Chinese excavations. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 400 BCE: Oldest written records of dice, in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 300 BCE: Oldest d20 from Egypt dated from the Ptolmaic period. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • 150 BCE: Egyptian d12 found from the Ptolmaic period. Source: Dicecollector.com
  • 100 AD: 2nd oldest 20-sided die. This ancient Roman d20 sold at auction for $17,925 in 2003. Source: Christie’s
  • 1000 AD: Dice buried in Viking grave mounds. Source: Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 14
  • 1600 AD: Dice first subject to mathematical analysis by Galileo and Girolamo Cardano. Probability mathematics conceived. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 1888 AD: 8-sided poker dice. Source: Dicecollector.com
  • 1906 AD: 10-sided dice patented in the US. Source: US Patent Office
  • 1950 AD: Oldest plastic d20, numbered 0-9, patented by Tokyo-Shibuara Electric Company. Source: Dicecollector.com
  • 1974 AD: Dungeons & Dragons published and sells a set of polyhedral dice. D20 numbered 0-9 and no d10. Source: our memory.
  • 1980 AD: At GenCon the first 10-sided dice claimed to have been invented. Source: our memory.
  • 1985 AD: The zocchihedron, d100 is released. Source: US Patent Office

Some Debunking

ancient roman diceGamers doing some cursory poking around on the internet might notice a few claims of older dice that are not included in this history. Certainly if you know of something we missed, please drop a comment with a link to the sources! However, there are some seemingly official-looking stories out there that don’t withstand scrutiny. Here are the big ones:

Burnt City Dice: If you go looking around online for the oldest dice found, you will inevitably stumble on a site talking about the world’s oldest backgammon set found in the Burnt City, along with the oldest set of dice. Every report of this find can be sourced back to a single Persian Journal article from 2004 (no longer online). This story has been repeated and scraped and reposted countless times across the internet. I have not been able to find any reports confirming the dice from the Burnt City that doesn’t take its text from the Persian Journal article.

Over at Chess Quest this article does a pretty good and well-documented job of debunking the reports of the Burnt City backgammon set & dice. Furthermore, it looks like the photo of ancient dice used in the article and every other repost of the article were actually taken from this site. The dice are from a collection of ancient dice and are actually roman dice made of bone dated from 100 BCE to 100 AD, and have nothing to do with the Burnt City. Thus this story doesn’t hold up enough to be included in the history of dice.

5000 BCE Dice: There are a handful of sites out on the web that claim that dice have been found dated back to 5000 BCE, and of course none of them list any sources. I’m pretty sure that this mis-dating also comes from that pesky Burnt City Persian Journal article. The article made reference to dice from 5,000 years ago. I strongly suspect that someone misinterpreted that as meaning 5000 BCE, and like the Burnt City story itself, the misinformation spread across the web.

Updates

11/11/2012: Added new oldest d20 for Egyptian d20 at Metropolitan Museum of Art.

5/26/2012: Added Tutankhamen knucklebone reference.

If you are aware of an oldest dice find or a significant archaeological find that you think should be added, please drop a comment with a link to the source and we’ll get it added if we can verify the info, and if we think it’s significant enough to squeeze in.

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22 Responses to History of Dice

  1. Zenopus says:

    Great timeline of dice history, though the 1974 D&D set did not actually come with a set of dice – they had to be purchased separately. TSR sold polyhedra dice (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20) and percentile sets (two d20, one white, one pink, each pre-inked in black ink, 0-9 twice).

    Also, d10s were available prior to 1980. The Dungeon Masters’ Guide, published 1979, refers to “non-platonic solid-shape dice are available in some places. The most common of these is a ten-sided die numbered 0-9″ (pg 10). From what I read, these had a different shape from the d10 introduced in 1980.

    • admin says:

      Hmm, I recall getting dice in my D&D, but perhaps I actually had a later version than I thought. Thanks for the heads up — I’ll look into it.

      d10 were indeed available earlier — they were patented in 1906, but there was a big announcement at the 1980 GenCon about their “invention” which I thought was well known enough and funny enough to include in the timeline.

      • Reverance Pavane says:

        The soft plastic multicoloured polyhedral dice that TSR sold were originally from a specialist mathematical supply company (I remember seeing them in the company’s catalogue [and grabbing them from there too]) for probability exercises in schools. They’d been available for at least a few years before the invention of D&D (which is why D&D could actually make use of them), and were occasionally used in tabletop wargames, along with such oddities as “average” dice (d6:2,3,3,4,4,5). They weren’t included in the original 1974 edition.

        • admin says:

          Yes — I worded that poorly. I didn’t mean to imply that the dice came with D&D, but that the polyhedral sets were made available when D&D was published. Have updated the wording a touch to try to make that more clear.

      • Fraser says:

        The original 1974 White or Beige D&D boxed set of three books did not come with dice. The blue box edition came with a set, but that was a little while later.

  2. Troy says:

    I will print this info graphic and carry it in my wallet, so that when I get some gruff over the use of dice other than the D6 I can defend their antiquity.. yes my arguments in public are both this nerdy and this boring.

  3. LS says:

    This is fascinating, thank you for putting all that information together!

    I will be taking advantage of your generous offer to redistribute the image by putting it up on my own blog tomorrow, with links back to you.

    I wonder, does this belong on your timeline at all? http://fairetymetoys.com/pmwiki.php?n=Main.NativeDice

  4. Steve S says:

    I was a Braunstein session (one of the first known RPG events mid-60s) at Gen Con a few years back, and the speaker noted that polyhedral dice (other then d6s) were pretty much unheard of commercially. They ended up buying platonic solids from Boston Scientific (or similar catalog). And they were ridiculously expensive ($5-$10 each in the sixties). Of course, back then it wasn’t simply a matter of doing a web search to find who made them. :)

  5. Ha! d4 is the oldest surviving Die. Yet again, we see there is nothing more awesome than the d4.

    • fiendishrabbit says:

      That’s because the d4 is the dice equivalent of John McClane.
      You mess with the d4, the d4 messes back with you!
      The thing isn’t as much a dice as a caltrop that can be used for randomization purposes.

  6. JohnnyDollar says:

    Why no knucklebones? I thought those were widely considered the ancestors of modern dice? 4 distinct sides, you roll them, you game with them. Considered “old” by the times they were even mentioned by the Romans.

    • admin says:

      I didn’t come across any good well-documented knucklebone finds — instead just a lot of references to the fact that they were used in old civilizations. If you know of any good dated references to substantially old knucklebones finds, please toss a link and maybe I can get them added in!

  7. R.K. Brumbelow says:

    I could not make it past the infografic. Make up your mind, use BCE/CE if you want to be politically correct or use BC/AD if you want to use the older form but trying to mix Before the Common Era (thus replacing ‘Before Christ’) with Anno Domini (The Year of our Lord) is silly.

  8. Gordon says:

    David Schwartz’s text, Roll the Bones, makes reference to Mesopotamian cubic dice dated to 3000 BCE, and to the use of astragali as an earlier form of dice predating them. There is no reference to the earliest-dated astragalus – they are mentioned in the same breath as the usual 5000-BCE-start-date associated with civilization in the region, suggesting their use throughout, but not clearly stated so. More detective work about their history is probably warranted.

  9. kaitlyn says:

    I didn’t notice the connection between the d20 and the fall of the Roman empire. Good call. I hope that doesn’t mean we’re in trouble..

  10. Aaron says:

    Looks like some d4s were found in a dig that dates back 7000 BC

    http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oldest-gaming-tokens-found-130814.htm

  11. admin says:

    Very cool find — thanks for the link! However, it looks like those pieces were in a 5,000 year old burial site (3,000 BC). They just noted that the region was inhabited as far back as 7,000 BC.

    However, since they did find dice at the dig, 3k BC still tops the list as oldest confirmed dice discovered!

  12. Kavade says:

    Similar to knuckle bones, Cowrie shells have been used as dice.
    Count with 4 cowrie shells:
    1 light side up – 1 count; 2 light sides up – 2 counts; 3 light sides up – 3 counts; 4 light sides up – 4 counts; No light sides up – 8 counts

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