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The discovery of the Roman dodecahedron simply reminds us of how stupid we are

There were two big mysteries in the news this week. First there was the discovery of a Roman dodecahedron in a field in Lincolnshire and second there was the question of what happened to Michael Gove’s forehead. And, I would add, are the two issues connected?

The dodecahedron find means that 120 such knobbly-objects have now been discovered across Europe, from the Netherlands to the UK, Germany to Austria. With this latest object unearthed near the village of Norton Disney, close to the site of a Roman villa discovered in 1923, 33 of varying sizes, from a golf to a cricket ball, have been found in Britain alone. It has, as they all do, left people scratching their heads.

Indeed, it emerges that Lorena Hitchens – a doctoral student at Newcastle University whose PhD concerns dodecahedra – says that they “are some of the least understood objects to survive from the Roman Empire,” adding: “The Romans don’t mention these at all – no inscriptions, no writings, no pictorial depictions, nothing.” Which leads to an even greater mystery, perhaps, on how she’s managing to get 80,000 words done on not knowing what the hell they are.

This find comes exactly 12 months after a metal detectorist found the fragment of another such object in a ploughed field in northern Flanders (and yes, I’ve also just got the chills having realised that Toby Jones – a hitherto, completely unheard of British character actor, now the most powerful man in Britain – starred in the TV series The Detectorists…)

The objects are things of intricate beauty and fascination. They are hollow, have 12 sides and there are large holes in each face and round studs in each corner.

A curator at the Gallo-Roman Museum in the Belgium city of Tongeren has speculated that they could be instruments to measure land, a calendar or an object related to sorcery or fortune telling. But, says Guido Creemers: “none of [the hypotheses] is satisfying.”

It is also intriguing to think that these objects were quite common, in that so many have survived, but the fact that we have no clue about what they were used for is a salient reminder about our place in history.

Professor Alice Roberts with the dodechahedron – Digging for Britain / BBC

Humans, across time, always tend to think that they are living in the greatest period, the moment of keenest discovery, of advancement in civilisation, of peak intellect. It’s a bit like how people regard restaurants. Terence Conran said in 1997: “There has never been a more exciting time to eat out.” The critic Michael Winner once wrote of “the golden period of the 1950s, when food tasted like it was meant to be.” In 1791, Samuel Johnson wrote that: “there is nothing which yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn.” And William Fitzstephen, in 1170, talked of a public eating house where “every thing desirable is instantly procured”.

The dodecahedron reminds us of how advanced the Romans were. They had underfloor heating, built roads and aqueducts, invented cement, had a functioning postal service, bound books, invented the Julian calendar, spread a unified currency across the empire, were hospitable to strangers, had a very relaxed attitude to sex and promiscuity, had an extremely good sense of humour (have you seen the graffiti in Pompeii?) and had enormous fun down at the circus.

Then it all went horribly wrong and Britain was plunged into the Dark Ages. Civilisation declined for hundreds of years (you couldn’t get a table in a decent restaurant, let alone with a tablecloth, until the 1400s) and the story was one of frequent bouts of extreme violence perpetrated by Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

Then fast forward to today, an era in which we celebrate the idiocy forced upon children that is the iPad, denying them of the chance to think and create, we fight wars creating unimaginable suffering and you can’t get a cone of decent ice-cream on any British high street.

Give the average person a Celtic Romano dodecahedron and ask them – Clive Anderson’s Whose Line is it Anyway style – to imagine and improvise its use and they’ll probably just chuck it at someone, with all the brains of a Neanderthal.

Which is possibly what happened to Michael Gove. Having (no doubt) fiercely castigated his ex-wife, Sarah Vine, for describing in The Spectator – and in doing so breaking the last taboo – who was at the Garrick one evening over Christmas (Kwasi Kwarteng, his wife, their vicar, Lord Howard, Lord Winston and Sting) she would have puffed, shrugged her shoulders yelled something like – “Oh do shut up you pompous idiot’” – and, grabbing the nearest object, a 1,600 year old dodecahedron, flung it at him and caused some very satisfying and temporary scarring.

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