It is quite some time since I was last persuaded to don my Roman arms and armour (for good reason, I’ve still got the chafe marks on my shoulders to prove it) but an opportunity presented itself recently when my office was flash-mobbed by the Curator of Egyptology, Campbell Price, with visiting researcher Regina Degiovanni who proceeded to give me an impromptu demonstration of how to make a pair of Roman gloves using a bronze dodecahedron… I feel I should point out that Manchester Museum has a wonderful knitted Coptic sock in its Egyptology collection, making us a popular port-of-call for experimental archaeologists who seek to puzzle out how people in antiquity rose to the challenges that everyday life threw at them, such as how to knit themselves a pair of socks, or, as in this case, a pair of gloves.
Except that I suspect the reverse was true: presented with the mystery of what the bronze dodecahedra found in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire were for, the intrepid experimental archaeologists arrived at the ingenious solution that they were used for knitting gloves. Sadly the wonderful archaeology collection at Manchester Museum is not blessed with an actual example of a dodecahedron but Regina had managed to obtain a 3D scan of one. Generations of Romanists, Classical scholars and archaeology students have long debated the purpose of these enigmatic objects. With ten sides, containing circular openings or apertures of different diameters and surmounted by knobs where the planes intersect, the famous dodecahedra have long defeated academic enquiry. The someone hit on the solution that they were used for knitting and Regina showed how it was done and asked me to model the fingers of the gloves (see photo).
Regina had been in contact with living history interpreters who dressed as Roman soldiers and they had talked about the need to cushion or insulate their hands against metal arms and armour, which not only chafes but in cold weather can be very uncomfortable to carry or wear. I happened to have a replica Roman spear lying around the office and so it was, literally within a minute, my calm orderly existence talking to Sam our Conservator before going to meet my 2 o’clock appointment was turned upside down and I found myself posing for a photo, pilum and dodecahedron in hand, wearing knitted finger stalls. I don’t suppose many people can say they’ve done that.
One thing is for sure: the gloves certainly helped to take the chill off the metal spear I was holding. Whether this does indeed solve the mystery of the dodecahedra is another question. What we need is some use wear analysis of the surface of the knobs on the outside of actual archaeological examples of dodecahedra using a stereomicroscope or a metallographic microscope to see if indeed there is any evidence of threads having been looped around the knobs consistent with the process of knitting. If this does indeed prove to be the case then activities for public programmes in the Museum for the foreseeable future can expect to be dominated by the experimental knitting of gloves to go with our Coptic sock. Does a new career modelling experimental archaeological knitwear beckon I wonder? Watch this space.
An old friend of this blog, Gordon MacLellan, wrote: “fascinating stuff, Bryan. Maybe the knitting developed like the “French knitting” (apologies to France) we used to do around nails in cotton reels.” Quite honestly I’d forgotten about French knitting at Primary School but I suspect it was the same principle. Thanks to Gordon.
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1) The Romans didn’t have knitting. As far as we know, knitting as it’s known today was invented in the Middle East in ~1000 CE.
2) They did, however, have nalbinding, which they used to make socks with separate toes; if they wanted gloves, that’s how they’d have done them.
3) We have no evidence of knitting nancies earlier than the seventeenth century.
4) If you’re going to use something as a knitting nancy, you want pegs with slight swelling at the ends, not inverted cones or spheres, because bulgy pegs make it significantly harder to form the stitches.
5) The dodecahedrons range in diameter from 4 to 11 cm. Four centimeters is about an inch and a half; I don’t know who could wear gloves that size, but it wouldn’t be an adult, and no one puts separate-finger gloves on an infant.
6) Why make a complicated, expensive, heavy metal knitting nancy when a wooden disk with nails pounded around the hole in the middle works better?
7) Stuffing the completed bits into the center of the thing is stupid, because it leads to things being all mashed up and hard to move.
8) Your fingers aren’t all actually set on one line.
9) No glove pattern in the world uses the same number of stitches for all five fingers and..
10) …if one did, it wouldn’t be five, which is not nearly enough in any yarn that’s not so bulky as to be ludicrous. (If you watch the video, look at her fingers when she puts the gloves on. Does that look like something you’d want to depend on for warm hands?)
11) How exactly does one make the “body” of the glove?
12) The primary reason they think it was for gloves is that the holes are different sizes. However, the holes have no effect whatsoever on the size of the stitches; that’s all about the spacing of the pegs, which is the same all around.
I also wonder not just what the enduser used dodecahedrons for, but more to the point is who made them and how? They require a level of percision hard to replicate even today — much less back in the days of roman conquests. Besides, many were found with hoards of treasure — surely a knitting device wasn’t so prized?
I think the socks are not knitted but made using the nalbinding technique.
As it seems you are also a Roman soldier re-enactment member, I wonder why such little attention is paid to Roman mathematics. Did you know that although Roman written values used their cumbersome letters to represent various decimal powers of value such as the I, X, C, D for 1s, 10s 100s and 500s and several others for up to a million, they also had a bronze pocket abacus that had 7 columns with two vertical slots for increasing decimal powers from 1s to millions. The lower slot in each column had 4 beads to count 1 to 4 of that columns decade, but the upper slot had one bead that counted for 5 of that decade. That allowed every character in a written Roman number to be transferred to the abacus, and a second value to be added, subtracted or multiplied. The Romans did not have a written symbol for zero, but they were fully aware of its existence by no beads in a counted position on the abacus.
That sane abacus had two further columns to the right for fractions, but not tenths, but twelfths and twelfths of twelfths. Not only does the 2nd column from the right count twelfths, but Romans had names for all their fraction starting at 11/12 down to 1/12, the name for 1/12 was “uncia” from which English gets the words “inch” and “ounce”. The sub- multiples included both twelfths but also included eighths (1 1/2 twelfths equals 1/8) and their fractions went as small as 1/2304 which is a sub-multiple if twelve and eight.
There would be at least one individual who could handle these fractions in every legion, and probably an agrimensor and another in the legion. This aspect is never mentioned in books or in any presentation, but who did you think calculated the size of piles and the number needed to build a bridge across the Rhine in 5 days! Caesar’s engineers!
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