Particularly used in Greek and Roman times for fortune telling and as game pieces, the knucklebone were also made of different materials such as bronze, lead, and glass to serve as weights.
Comprised of three pieces, the weights set in the shape of an anklebone in the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection, stand out with their large dimensions and detailed workmanship. Both ends of the handles are shaped like thumbs and swan heads. The letters and numbers seen on the bodies are inlaid in silver. The three weights are in 50, 75 and 100 libra’s, which is the basic unit of weight used by the Romans.
The evidence from ethnographical, historical and archaeological record shows that these bones are found in both religious and secular contexts. Because of its characteristic and cubic shape it is furthermore often considered the forerunner of the modern dice. Casting lots in divination has the same principle as a game of dice. In both a supernatural power decides the fate of the person. What made the cubiform astragalus suitable for divination and gambling was most likely the dualistic thinking, exemplified by dichotomies such as life-death, good-bad, yes-no.
The religious dimension of the astragalus comes from a time when the humans depended on their interplay with animals for their survival. To maintain their stability, humans communicated with their gods and higher powers through magic and rituals. Even though almost all mammals have the astragalus bone, only sheep, goats, pigs, bovines and deer have the attractive rounded and cubiform-shaped astragalus bones, which are suitable for dicing.
Looking at the traces of past cultures all over the world, one can witness the astragalus bone was used for such rituals throughout history. The astragalus was probably chosen for this role due to its unusual shape and physical properties: the fact that it was a mere bone in the body contrasted with the bone’s divine appearance.
The ancient historical and archaeological sources that provide information on preparation of the astragalus in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, show that how the bone was used has been relatively unchanged in the past 4,000 years.
Even though the Knucklebones (or Jacks) game played with the astragali has been the most common usage of the bones, since it is difficult to distinguish between game and ritual -and mostly of no advantage- the exact purpose and use of the bone is not clear.
Many past cultures ascribe the origins and qualities of money to supernatural powers. The origin of primitive money is often attributed to the need of giving standardised objects as offerings to gods. In many archaeological contexts where offerings to gods were discovered the astragali have also been found, since the gods that were responsible for the wellbeing of livestock received offerings that suited their purpose. This resulted in a reciprocal relationship of giving and taking between gods and humans.
The value of astragalus as an object of exchange was determined according to the needs of different cultures. Considering it was merely a knuckle bone, the intrinsic value of the bone was probably not high, but the fact that only two bones were found in each animal possibly made it more attractive.
It’s very probable that the astragalus was only seen as a currency within certain ceremonial contexts and not for the actual exchange of small goods. However as long as the bone is a central element in games and especially in gambling, it is certainly possible that it developed properties similar to those of currency.
As such, the 77 astragalus bones found in a “wine shop” in the Beycesultan excavations in the city of Denizli, could be interpreted as evidence of the bones being used for exchange of smaller goods with daily use.
In current Mongolian societies, the astragalus has a protective and fertile power due to the connection it has with the life-sustaining animals. This power can be demonstrated through the bone’s use for divinations, as amulets and as a game piece.
A selection from the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation The Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection can be seen at Pera Museum.