A very unusual die was found in Southwark, during a dig carried out in advance of construction of the new Wolfson Wing at Guy’s Hospital in 2000 (BHB00). This die is of stone, and in place of spots it has carved capital letters inlaid apparently with pigment.
Nevertheless, as on normal dice, the number of characters on opposing faces still totals seven: P (perhaps the initial of a name) opposite ITALIA ('Italy'), VA ('perhaps initials for two names') opposite VRBIS ('of a town'), EST ('is) opposite ORTI ('risen' or 'born') .
The die was found on a scorched floor beside a small hearth, within a building that may have been a workshop; it contained two large ovens, and this phase of construction dates to the 2nd century or later.
To our knowledge, this is the first lettered die from Britain, though a few examples have been found elsewhere in the Roman empire. Unfortunately, no-one has yet worked out how they were used.
Some games involved moving pieces around a board, and so were the forerunners of games like backgammon. Others were merely a case of throwing dice and betting on the outcome.
Perhaps lettered dice were used in pairs or groups, enabling players to make up words or sentences. At any rate, gambling became so popular in the Roman Empire, and resulted in so many bankruptcies, that it was banned by the emperor Hadrian.
A version of this article by Jenny Hall, Museum of London and Chris Pickard, Pre-Construct Archaeology first appeared in Archaeology Matters No 12, December 2000