24 Jul 2007

The dicey proof of Etruscan numerals

There are a pair of dice called the Tuscania dice that everyone studying Etruscan encounters. It's unavoidable. Whenever an Etruscologist of any sort publishes anything about the Etruscan numeral system, it's a done deal that we will be told of those lovely ivory dice and how this somehow proves conclusively the proper order of the numerals. It is said that dice in classical times followed a specific order and were made such that any two opposing sides would be respectively marked with numbers that when added together equalled seven. So if we have "one" on one side, we expect "six" on the other. If we have "four" on one side, we expect "three" on the other. And so on, and so on.

The words for most numbers in Etruscan are no longer up for debate because of the many inscriptions beyond just the dice that show their true mathematical values. However some numbers, the words for "six" and "four", are still being debated to this very day.

You see, from these dice, despite other notables in the field who had said before this discovery that śa means "six" and huθ means "four", we are now often told, far too confidently, the very opposite, based only on these dice, that śa means "four" and huθ means "six". Upon reading that information, the reader is expected to sleep tight and feel that they know everything they need to know. The debate is now closed...

But is it?

Unfortunately, the pattern on the dice are not as dependable as widely believed. The following link hits home a simple message, easily verifiable, which quickly uncovers a masked uncertainty in this material evidence:
On each page is a lucid warning at the top: "Note that many ancient dice are NOT numbered in the standard (1-6, 2-5, 3-4) way." Be warned and take note of the various patterns possible. Frankly, it's somewhat common sense that in an age before mass production, there must have been variation but this revelation in itself undermines the hallowed evidence. There is, of course, no scientific reason that "1-6, 2-5, 3-4" should be a preferred pattern over all others since if the dice are properly made, all sides should have an equal chance of turning up with each roll.

As you can see by this list of photos of ancient dice discovered in various locations, there is indeed a prevalent classical pattern of "1-6, 2-5, 3-4" which would seem at first to confirm the feelings of many Etruscologists, however there are also a significant number of dice that follow other patterns like "1-3, 2-4, 5-6" and "1-2, 3-4, 5-6" showing that the debate on the proper order of the Etruscan number system, particularly concerning the words for "four" and "six" are just not resolved to any appreciable degree by these artifacts alone.


  1. Many years ago I used the funerary inscriptions that had the number of years the deceased had lived written in words rather than in numerals to help define the names of the numbers.

    It would be interesting to repeat the process adding similar inscriptions found since then.

    Nicki D. Harper, Ph.D.

  2. Maybe I'm dense because I've been deprived of sleep for the past week but could you elaborate? What language were you examining? Are you speaking of Etruscan?

    What I think would be truly conclusive evidence for the values of śa and huθ would be a kind of "Rosetta Stone" displaying both numerals and their spelled-out equivalents on the same artifact. Another would be to find a body that can be accurately aged while accompanying an inscription with either of these two numerals. However, I don't know how likely that is.

    Barring that possibility, I think that the epithet Charun Huθs might be telling considering that it is one of only four (not six) representations of the god Charun in the Tomba dei Caronti. On page 215 of De Grummond & Simon's (2006), the reader is told that this phrase means "Charun Number Six" and yet a convincing, well-argued explanation is nowhere to be seen. I think the point is that De Grummond et al. don't know at all what this means and consequently don't know enough about linguistics to be able to interpret these artifacts properly.

    While I'm at a loss to comprehend what the symbolism of "six" should mean in a funerary context, I can immediately come up with one reasonable interpretation as to what the symbolism of "four" could refer to. The cardinal directions of the Etruscan cosmos, perhaps.

  3. I'm just very interested in Etruscan and no expert what so ever. But what do you think about this quote found on Wikipedia (I remembered it read somewhere...):

    "Tetrapolis (Greek: Τετράπολις) comprised one of the twelve districts into which Attica was divided before the time of Theseus. The district was on a plain in the northeastern part of Attica and contained four cities: Marathon (Μαραθών), Probalinthus (Προβάλινθος), Tricorythus (Τρικόρυθος), and Oenoe (Οἰνόη). Stephanus of Byzantium claimed Huttēnia (Ὑττηνία) was its name among the Pelasgoi.[1]"

    Tetrapolis = HUTTENIA ???

  4. Yes, the gloss of Ὑττηνία has been mentioned by some Etruscanists as evidence in favour of huθ meaning 'four' as well. (See for example: Bonfante, Bonfante. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (2002) on p.127, fn.71) I have not come across anything disproving this forgotten connection and those who reject this connection appear to do so out of a sense of taste not facts. The dice must be assumed to follow the Roman pattern (adding up to seven on opposite sides). They could just as well be arranged such that each side is subtracted by its opposite side to total "three" to show huθ equaling four.

    Just like the numeral seven, three had religious meaning too. Among other things, it would surely evoke the holy Triad in Etruscan religion, whether the Capitoline Triad (Roman Jupiter, Juno, Minerva = Etruscan Tinia, Uni, Menerva), or the Solar Triad (Roman Jupiter Summanus, Jupiter Fidius, Jupiter Tonans = Etruscan Tinia Cilens, Tinia Thufal, Tinia Thneth).