Loaded die from Roman times found in Belgium


Cheating is an ancient art. At the Gallo-Roman villa of Mageroy in Habay-la-Vieille, in the province of Luxembourg, archaeologists have discovered a die loaded with mercury. A first in the history of antiquity, by all means.

It has been over 20 years, but this does not make the find any less spectacular. To his own amazement, young amateur archaeologist Julien Minet retrieved a cube of bone from at a landfill of the villa in Habay-la-Vieille. When he retrieved it, he noticed that it had broken into three pieces and had mercury inside. It turned out to be a die that had been tampered with.

That was the end of the matter – until now. The artefact was deposited at the Arlon archaeological museum. It was recently visited by a Belgian archaeologist, Thomas Daniaux, who was permitted to inspect the tricked die as part of his dissertation on board games from the Gallo-Roman period. His research dovetailed with the University of Freiburg's Locus Ludi project on games culture in the Mediterranean basin in ancient times. This is a unique specimen of its kind, never seen before.

Gambling appears to have been a favoured pastime in all walks of life at the time. Lead as a trick for tampering was already well-known; mercury was brand new in that respect. How exactly does it work? Mercury is liquid and heavy. You can drain the substance to the side of the die opposite the desired number of dots. Pretty sophisticated, isn't it?