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Identification and Creation
Object Number
Recreational Artifacts
Work Type
game piece
5th-1st century BCE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Copper alloy
Cast, lost-wax process
2.4 cm (15/16 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: The shape of the metal knucklebone replicates the original astragalus perfectly in all of its details, suggesting that it was formed by molding rather than by direct modeling. The object is probably solid. The surface is distorted by green corrosion pustules and cracks that reveal a well-formed cuprite layer below the green. Traces of dull gray and tan burial soil are caught in the interstices.

Francesca G. Bewer (submitted 2012)

The Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection, Department of the Classics, Harvard University (before 1970-2012), transfer; to the Harvard Art Museums, 2012.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection, Department of the Classics, Harvard University
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This object is a faithful representation of an astragalus, a bone from the ankle of a sheep or goat commonly known as a knucklebone. Copper alloy replicas of astragaloi occur in many collections of antiquities (1). Astragaloi of various mammals were used as gaming pieces for a variety of different games throughout the ancient world (2), and sets of the bones often occur in Greek graves of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Much work remains to be done on knucklebones themselves, from the standpoint of faunal analysis, and on their metal replicas, which may have served at times as votive gifts as well as weights and game pieces (3).


1. For a few examples in museum collections, see M. Comstock and C. C. Vermeule, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Bronzes in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Greenwich, CT, 1971) 436-37, no. 639 (inv. no. 65.1184), said to be Roman in date; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. X.229, third to second century BCE. Note also large red-figure pottery vessels in the shape of astragaloi in the British Museum, London, inv. no. E804; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 40.11.22, and the Villa Giulia, Rome, inv. no. 866; see G. M. A. Richter, “An Athenian Astragalos,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 36.5 (1941): 122-23; and H. Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immorality on Greek Vases (Oxford, 1997) 107-12.

2. See J. Neils and J. H. Oakley, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, exh. cat., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College; Onassis Cultural Center, New York; Cincinnati Art Museum; and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (New Haven, 2003) 278-79, nos. 86-90. Note that ibid., no. 90, is a glass replica; see also a lead knucklebone in the Harvard Art Museums, 1935.35.52.A. For information on the use of astragaloi in games before and after Classical antiquity, see F. N. David, “Dicing and Gaming (A Note on the History of Probability),” Biometrika 42.1-2 (1955): 1-15; and G. Bar-Oz, “An Inscribed Astragalus with a Dedication to Hermes,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64.4 (2001): 215-17.

3. For a detailed discussion on the uses of knucklebones in the Greek world in connection with the thousands of knucklebones found in the Corycian Cave, above Delphi, see P. Amandry, “Os et Coquilles,” in L’Antre Corycien 2, Bulletin de correspondance hellénique Suppl. 9 (1984) 347-78. For a knucklebone with an inscription dedicating it to Asklepios, see L. Robert, Collection Froehner 1: Inscriptiones Grecques (Paris, 1936) 44-45, no. 40, pl. 17. See also lead and bronze weights with depictions of knucklebones on them as an indicator of their unit of measurement, in that case a stater, in M. Lang, Weights, Measures and Tokens, Athenian Agora 10 (Princeton, 1964) 6-7, 13-17, 19, 25, and 27; nos. BW 1 and LW 3-7; pls. 1-3.

David G. Mitten

Publication History

John Crawford, Sidney Goldstein, George M. A. Hanfmann, John Kroll, Judith Lerner, Miranda Marvin, Charlotte Moore, and Duane Roller, Objects of Ancient Daily Life. A Catalogue of the Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection Belonging to the Department of the Classics, Harvard University, ed. Jane Waldbaum, Department of the Classics (unpublished manuscript, 1970), M195, p. 213 [J. S. Crawford]

Subjects and Contexts

Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

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