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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
2.8 x 1.5 x 1.4 cm (1 1/8 x 9/16 x 9/16 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: The patina on each of these knucklebones is different. Both 1935.35.52.B and 1978.495.46 are a mottled light green with a few areas worn down to a reddish brown. The former is also saturated with wax overall. 1992.256.198 has a dark brown patina, which is uncharacteristic of an archaeological bronze that has long been buried.

The three knucklebones are in good structural condition, and all of them preserve some traces of soil in their recesses. 1992.256.198 has a few dings that have exposed the golden hue of polished metal. 1978.495.46 is also worn on the edges, and one of its projecting ends has been crushed. The surface of 1935.35.52.B is the most visibly altered by corrosion and cleaning.

All three knucklebones are solid, although evidence is insufficient to determine how they were cast. The softer contours and greater detail of 1992.256.198 suggests that it was cast by the lost-wax process. A discontinuity in the metal at the bottom right corner of the paper label glued to 1935.35.52.B may be the result of mis-registered mold pieces. The coarse surface of 1978.495.46 is more likely the result of casting and could be evidence that the mold material used was coarse. It is unclear whether the double ridge along one of the flat surfaces is an anatomical detail or a decorative element.

Francesca G. Bewer (submitted 2001)


Recorded Ownership History
Formerly in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, no. E-2204.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 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

Exhibition History

  • Roman Gallery Installation (long-term), Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/16/1999 - 01/20/2008

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

Verification Level

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