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Researcher Raymond Greaves proposes Night Candle Clock theory after rare Roman dodecahedron unearthed by Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group appears on BBC2’s Digging for Britain





The TV appearance of a “baffling” rare Roman object unearthed in a village has attracted an enthusiast to share a theory of what it may be.

A Roman dodecahedron, one of just 33 found in Britain, was uncovered last year by Norton Disney History and Archaeology group during its summer excavation.

It appeared on BBC Two’s Digging for Britain with Professor Alice Roberts on Tuesday, January 9, and has also been on display at the National Civil War Centre in Newark.

The rare Roman dodecahedron found in Norton Disney was featured on BBC2's Digging for Britain. Credit: BBC2 Digging for Britain, Rare TV
The rare Roman dodecahedron found in Norton Disney was featured on BBC2's Digging for Britain. Credit: BBC2 Digging for Britain, Rare TV

Now, a history enthuasiast has come forward with what he believes is the answer to what the mysterious artefacts were used for — which have, he claims, “for over 250 years eluded an accepted decision on their most likely usage and have been an ongoing mystery for archaeology”.

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Raymond Greaves, of Bedfordshire, has presented the theory that the object would be used as a ‘night candle clock’.

He was at a meeting of the Leighton Linslade U3A group when he “had a sudden burst of enlightenment” which led him to consider the correlation of the 12 sided object and the 12 months of the year.

Previous theories have included dodecahedrons being used for knitting, games or the top of a staff.

In his research he proposed: “The devices were used to hold wax candles of different dimensions for different times of year and for different latitudes to provide an approximate time during the period of night when sundials and water clocks would not serve, and in most cases were used to mark the passage of four watches as practiced by Roman military encampments.”

The dodecahedrons have been found across Northern Europe, but not in Rome or near the Mediterranean.

Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group secretary Richard Parker, Professor Alice Roberts and researcher Lorena Hitchens with the Roman dodecahedron. Credit: BBC2 Digging for Britain, Rare TV
Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group secretary Richard Parker, Professor Alice Roberts and researcher Lorena Hitchens with the Roman dodecahedron. Credit: BBC2 Digging for Britain, Rare TV

Each is skillfully crafted with twelve faces, each with a hole of a different diameter.

The link of this to each month is supported by a find at Geneva in 1982 - which has the twelve signs of the zodiac displayed across the faces.

Mr Greaves’ research states that the objects have been between four centimetres and 11 centimetres in height, and the inside of the holes have been smoothed as to not damage anything inserted into them.

He believes each hole is to hold a candle of varying diameters, the time each takes to burn correlating with the length of the night. Multiple reports, he claims, also mention wax being found on the objects.

His research continued: “With the idea that these devices could in fact be a means to monitor the approximate length of night, along with the knowledge the length of night changes with the seasons, and that the Roman practice was to accept that hours change length depending on the date and location, and that while the notion of hours during the night was not as important as the four watches used by Romans during the night. It seemed that only an approximation was sufficient for the assumed use, monitoring the four watches.”

The differing sizes of the dodecahedrons and their holes can be explained by the need for different sizes of candle for different lengths of night at each latitude, Mr Greaves claims, something which the Romans were “well able to determine” using “Vitruvian equinoxial gnomons”.

The lack of dodecahedrons in Rome and the Mediterranean is explained in the research by the use of water clocks in these areas. However, Mr Greaves theorised the water clocks would more often freeze in the climate of Northern Europe, meaning the use of candles would be more practical.

Mr Greaves’ full document can be seen here.

Another theory - which has also surfaced after the Norton Disney dodecahedron’s BBC TV appearance - is that it may have been used as a connector to build a tent frame, or as a frame designed to repeat defined shapes and projections in building.

Paul Meunier contacted the Advertiser with his thoughts after he heard about the find. He said: “Why not many more of these are found is a mystery though — unless it was a prototype or something to expensive to produce or purchase in large numbers.”

The dodecahedron was found near the Roman Villa site in Norton Disney, during the archaeology group’s largest dig to date.

It was branded as “one of the most unusual discoveries ever made on Digging for Britain”. The item was one of several from Lincolnshire to feature on the BBC Two show this week.

What do you think the item may have been used for? Share your ideas in the comments below



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