Board Games - The Roll of Knucklebones and Dice Throughout History

detail of an old dice

'Shake Them Bones'


Bones have been playthings from time immemorial. In Medieval and Roman times it was very popular to play games with animal bones; usually it would be ankle bones or knuckle bones from sheep.

The most popular game was the forerunner for the modern game of 'Jacks'. Players threw knucklebones into the air and caught as many as they could on the back of their hands or picked up as many bones as they could from the ground while one was in the air. This game is immortalised in a terracotta sculpture in the British Museum from about 800 BC.

As each of the four sides of a knuckle bone is different, it was similar to a four sided dice, each of the four sides would be given a value, they would be used for gambling games. Different throws have received distinctive names, such as riding the elephant, peas in the pod, and horses in the stable. In Roman times the winning throw would be known as Venus and the losing throw as canis 'dog' and used for board games such as the Medieval predecessor of Backgammon, 'Game of Twelve Lines'.

How do you score knucklebones?


1 pt for the 'flat' side; 3 pts for the 'concave' side; 4 pts for the convex side; 6 pts for the 'twisted' side.


Dealing with Dice in History


The ancient Egyptians and Romans also used dice for gambling and many board games, knucklebones developed into dice and they were made of antler and bone for the most part but there are examples of them being made from other materials. Dice have also not always been made in the shape of a cube. Stone dice used in Egypt in about 250BC were 10 sided.

Roman coin depicting Fortuna
Roman coin depicting Fortuna
In ancient times the throw of a dice was not just considered to be luck, the outcome was believed to be controlled by the gods and casting dice was a way of predicting the future. The Roman goddess, Fortuna, daughter of Zeus (known to gamblers as Lady Luck), was believed to determine the outcome of a throw. In English, dice are sometimes colloquially referred to as "bones", as in "shake them bones" but ivory, amber, wood, metal, and stone materials have been commonly used. Although the use of plastics, including cellulose acetate and bakelite is now nearly universal.

In Medieval times many games involved betting, even games such as Chess, Backgammon and Bowls. Gambling with dice was the most popular in England particularly in London in the 1500's, and was played in all ranks of society, even the clergy. In England, Richard the Lion Heart and King John both gambled with dice and King Henry VIII lost the bells of old St Paul's church on a throw.

Medieval bone die. Excavated from Monkgate, Hull.
Dice games were played in many English inns and sometimes dice were used to fool gullible gamblers. Many dice that have been excavated and x-rayed have revealed small mercury weights inside them so they would deliberately fall on one number. In medieval times loaded dice like this were called 'Fulhams', presumably Fulham in London was notorious as the haunt for dice cheats.