The astragalus, or talus, is also known as the knucklebone. Worked and unworked astragali have formed part of non-food material culture in many societies, being used as divination tools, gaming pieces, amulets, ‘worry beads’, dice, and other things (Dandoy, 2006: 131). They are depicted on ceramics, in statuary, on medallions and coins, in oil paintings and in the comic pages of Sunday newspapers (Dandoy, 2006: 131). In short, they are ubiquitous.
Astragali occur over a wide spatial and temporal continuum (Dandoy, 2006: 131). They are found in sites ranging from northern Iraq to Belgium, and from Ethiopia and South Africa to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys in the New World (Dandoy, 2006: 131). The reason for this is unclear, but proposed reasons include the sanctity of animal life, animal worship, and the stragalus’ distinctive look, feel and workability (Dandoy, 2006: 132). Amongst Bovidae, Cervidae and Camelidae, the six-sided rectangular shape of the astragalus makes it well-suited as a throwing or shooting piece (Dandoy, 2006: 132).
Many astragali from the Fosse Temple at Lachish were used in astragalomancy, and those found at Enkomi, Tarnassos, Kourion and Kition (1225-1075 BC) have been interpreted the same way (Dandoy, 2006: 132). Pausanias described a classical Greek divination using five astragali and a tablet of results based upon the combination of numbers thrown (Dandoy, 2006: 132).
Gaming using astragali probably evolved from divination. One of the earliest game boards using astragali came from the tomb of Reny-Soube at Thebes (c. 1800 BC), which the excavators called ‘Hounds and Jackals’. It may have been similar to Snakes and Ladders (Dandoy, 2006: 132). Four sides of the six-sided astragalus can face up in a game without significant impediments. Each side could be assigned a numerical value in accordance with the frequency with which that side landed face up when thrown (Dandoy, 2006: 132). Other games give names to the sides. The lateral sides all had leaders’ names (Bey, King, Tsar, Judge), the medial side carries that of a second in command (Steward, Manager, Lieutenant), the dorsal was name for a free man or minor official (Peasant, Man, Berger) and the plantar for a devalued person (Thief, Slave). Such games can be found in both Near Eastern and European cultures (Dandoy, 2006: 133).
Representations of astragali made of non-bone materials are also known (Dandoy, 2006: 133). Two from Ephesus (Archaic Period) are of blue glass, whilst three in glass and one in bronze have been found in the Amanthus Tombs (Cypro-Archaix and Middle Cypriote Periods) (Dandoy, 2006: 133). Bronze, marble, glass and limestone examples have been found at Korykeion Cave and from Egypt there are green-glazed faience examples from Amarna and ivory examples from Tutankhamun’s tomb (Dandoy, 2006: 133). These, and other, examples would indicate that the astragalus had a cultural value exceeding that of a gaming piece, perhaps imbued with magical powers, a bearer of good luck or a religious artefact (Dandoy, 2006: 133).
Inscriptions and Decorations:
Astragali inscribed with the names of Nike, Hercules, Ajax and Achilles, as well as individual letters of the Greek alphabet are known from sites such as the Athenian Agora and Delos (Dandoy, 2006: 133). It has been surmised that these were created to honour gods or heroes and/or to bring good luck to the wearer or in games of chance (Dandoy, 2006: 133). Drilling of astragali is also commonplace. Some of these holes were then filled with lead, suggesting that the intention was to make them heavier or more accurate, however others have been with pierced with metal rings that might have therefore been strung on a chain (Dandoy, 2006: 133).
Reference: Dandoy, J. R. 2006. Astragali through Time, pp 131-137. Integrating Zooarchaeology. Maltby, M (ed). Oxbow Books: Oxford.