Diversity and History: A Look Back at the Roman Dodecahedron

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The year was 1739, when archaeologists uncovered a strange bronze artifact from a Roman treasure trove. It was a hollow dodecahedron with round knobs at each of its corners and circles of various sizes cut into its pentagonal planes. The first discovered was dated around the 2nd or 3rd century, but since then, hundreds more have been found all within the borders of what was once the Roman Empire.

Since their discovery, their purpose has been a mystery. There are no surviving records to describe their use, yet they were valuable enough to be included in treasure troves, and plentiful enough to merit it as a common tool. Their neat geometric shapes gave rise to the idea they were some sort of range finder for military commanders, or perhaps were used to calculate the grades of roads or buildings. They have been found in battle camps and in civic areas, but these theories seem unlikely, as there is a library worth of records that describe military and engineering practices, and nowhere are these devices mentioned. There are no graduations anywhere on the dodecahedrons, and their sizes vary between 1.6 and 4.3 inches in diameter, without standards, any measurements would be very difficult to make.

Mathematicians who saw the device speculated it could be used to predict celestial events, and after several mind-numbing calculations they found they could do just that, but there was a problem. Nowhere in their use of the device did they find the knobs on the corners necessary, and holes they looked through were not always present. Some could be used to measure the sky, but that didn’t mean that’s what they were meant to do. Many more theories came about of even less likely uses.

When wax was discovered in them it was thought to be a candlestick holder or a vase, though it could’ve just been a remnant of the casting process used to make them. Were they the head of a mace? Too flimsy. A child’s toy? Too complex and valuable. A religious relic, a fletcher’s gauge, a dowsing lens, the top of a scepter, Dice? No one could figure it out, but then, after hundreds of years of historians, astronomers and mathematicians beating their heads against the slate, a man from this past decade may have it figured it out.

A man named Martin Hallet had a theory when he learned these devices were found in colder areas of the empire. This man was not a historian, nor a mathematician, he was a hobbyist, a knitter and it took a knitter to recognize a knitter’s tool. This YouTube video from 2014 demonstrates how the 3D artifact works and brings history back to life.

He found that these dodecahedrons were best suited to making gloves. The hollow space in the center is used to hold the yarn, the knobs on the corners are where the where the yarn is wrapped to form a lattice and the holes are there to gauge the sizes of fingers. With little effort, the man makes a glove, just as the romans did almost a thousand years ago.

Since the discovery, the device has gained a cult following, but what’s most important, is understanding the value of a different perspective. The reason it took so long to figure out what it did had nothing to do with intelligence, there were plenty of smart people who worked on it, each competent in their respective fields. What it took was someone with a different background to see the problem differently. It is a phenomenon Venture Up knows all too well.

People when presented a problem play into what they know. Engineers tend to be very analytical, using numbers and formulae to get through their problems. Social workers are often more team conscious while people working in construction are more tactile in their reasoning. Different professions use different strategies, just as intellectuals do. The Escape Case we offer embodies many modes of thought participants must contend with, and as such serves as a diagnostic tool.

Critical thinking, spacial reasoning, creativity, linguistics, are all incorporated in the game, and what’s fascinating, is different teams of the same company often get hung up on the same obstacle. A team full of only engineers may get hung up on a problem that takes simple trial and error, as seen with this Houston group. Social workers and construction workers struggle with math, and salesmen are seldom thorough when searching the whole box. It’s not because they’re dumb, they are perfectly competent people. It’s the lack of different perspectives that get them hung up.

Whether it’s a centuries old knitting ball, team building games or obstacles of the workplace, a differed perspective can make solving a problem easy. Hundreds of years of same minded people went nowhere despite their education and wouldn’t solved until one guy happened to see the artifact and applied what he knew. He wasn’t any smarter or dumber, he just equipped with the right background, and showed diversity of thought goes a long way towards solving problems.