On the myriad uses of astragali (knuckle-bones)

One of the most ubiquitous bone finds in archaeological sites are astragali or knuckle-bones.

I remember collecting these as kids and playing ‘knuckles’ – the real bones beat the plastic ones any day. But the problem is that no-one quite knows what their uses were in ancient contexts. There’s speculation aplenty, such as divination, or games, or counting stores of grain, legumes, or the numbers in a flock of sheep and goats.

But I wonder whether they have something to do with the regular use of lot in village-communes of the ANE. Arable land was re-allocated annually, usually in strips, to members of the village-commune (with the implication that land was not regarded as private-property). The process of re-allocation may rely on a village patriarch, a council of elders, or all the adult males. But the most common method was by lot. So one possibility is that the astragali were used for that purpose, especially since many of them are marked. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they were for merely one purpose – games and counting and divination and practices not seemly to mention on a family blog may be other uses. After all, subsistence survival requires the usage of every item in multiple ways – at least after you’ve gnawed off the gristle around it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.