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.