Sometime between 304 and 30 BC, a craftsman in Ptolemaic Egypt shaped what is now accepted to be the world’s oldest 20-sided die. The die is carved from serpentine rock and engraved in Greek letters. Also, it d20 looks remarkably well to be over 2,000 years old.

The die is currently held in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has resided there without much fanfare since 1910 after being acquired by Reverend Chauncey Murch. The Reverend acquired the d20 during his missionary work in Egypt between 1883 and 1906.

Here are some other fascinating facts about the world’s oldest d20:

The d20 is covered in Greek letters, not Egyptian hieroglyphs. When the d20 was shaped, Egypt was under the control of the Greek Ptolemies, whose dynasty began with the founding of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 304 BC by the Macedonian general Ptolemy I Soter, upon the death of Alexander the Great.

We know that the d20 dates somewhere between 304 and 30 BC because the Ptolemies dynasty came to a cataclysmic end when Cleopatra died during the Roman leader Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. An event also that also heralded the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Roman-Egyptian d20 Spat
The Ptolmemaic d20 would have been shaped before Caesar Augustus annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire.

The d20 was almost assuredly never used to roll for initiative. Simply put, this is not part of a dnd dice set. It can only be speculated for what the d20 was used. It very well could have been used for some sort of game that has been lost to history. Alternatively, it could have been used for divination rituals, for which dice were often used in the ancient world.

Serpentine rock, of which this d20 was made, has long been used for crafted objects and as architectural stone. Harder than marble, yet softer than granite, serpentine was very popular in the United States as late as the early 20th century. The reason you don’t see it often today is because of concerns for worker safety as serpentine is known to contain asbestos.

Like this post? Then check out our History of Dice blog post.

Comments (3)

Hi, I was just wondering what specific symbols were on the dice. I was considering replicating it, it might be an interesting addition to my dice bag. I’m aware that it’s supposed to be the letters of the greek alphabet, there being 20 letters it fits percect. But on the image shown the front letter looks like an A but with a v in the middle. Is this just an alteration of the letter A? Or does it mean something else? And are there other alterations to this specific dice?

Levi S Bradley

What are the odds that the person who introduced polyhedrals to the gaming world would read and comment on this!!!
That’s a Nat 20 if I ever heard one!

John Hudert

There is no proof that this object was ever used as a die. The first “D20” I ever saw was also numbered from 1 to 20, not for use as a dice, but as an example of the icosahedron, the twenty-sided member of the set of five regular polyhedra that was made for use in solid geometry classes, so students could see what the five shapes were. The faces were numbered in case a student had telling the faces apart when counting them. The “numbering” on this object uses the first 20 letters of the Greek alphabet, rather than “1=20” as the Greeks did not have the Arabic number system, but there are examples of using their alphabet to represent numbers, as for example, in writing the Biblical number of the beast in the Book of Revelation as chi xi stigma (meaning 600+60+6) rather than as 6-6-6. I began using the five regular polyhedra in the set I purchased from a school supply catalog, as dice in 1965, adapting our wargame rules to employ them in combination with ordinary six-sided dice. Prior to my introducing them to our group, no one we knew had ever seen polyhedra used as dice. When David Arneson, who was a member of our group, created the first Fantasy RPG, Blackmoor, he included the use of the polyhedral dice in it. He then showed Blackmoor to Gary Gygax, who was inspired to create his fantasy RPG, Greyhawk, which followed Arneson in using polyhedral dice. And when they collaborated to create Dungeons and Dragons, which became the first commercially successful RPG, it made polyhedral dice a familiar feature of gaming ever since.

David Wesely

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