This site is an online reference for re-creational medievalism, which involves making a sincere effort to reproduce the lifestyle of a race or region of the distant past. I am part of an organization dedicated to re-enacting life as a member of the Fifth Century (AD/CE) Irish Celtic nobility. If you found this page without checking my index page first, you will find more information there.

Echna's Celtic Knucklebones Page

My interest in knucklebones was initially sparked by a conversation with Aonghus, the leader of my re-enactment group, and my personal mentor in all "things Irish". The conversation went something along these lines...

Aonghus: "I sure wish I could find 'real' knucklebones for sale. All I can find are resin-cast models of the real thing".
Me: "Well, where do the knucklebones come from?"
Aonghus: "Sheep. There's a web page I know of that shows what shape the actual bone is, if you're interested."

That conversation launched me on a multi-month "quest" to find sheep legs, and then figure out *what* bone to extract, *how* said extraction should occur, and *which* cleaning method(s) would work to clean the results!

I've since discovered different bones were used for different types of dice games. The "talus" bone is mentioned in Roman dice games as shown at the Roman Board Games page. This page is a good resource in general, as many Roman games made their way to Britain through conquest, and to Ireland through trade. The game, "Tali" is named after the specific type of bone used in that game. Other sections of bone and horn or antler were used for other games. From personal experimentation, I can say that the lamb's toe bone is quite evenly shaped and appears to be conducive to even tosses without requiring sawing or cutting of any sort.

For now, I will refer to two separate bones: the "talus" and the "phalange". These roughly correspond to the kneecap (talus - plural tali) and toe bones (phalange - plural phalanx).

The following book is an invaluable resource for learning about various period ways bone and bone-like materials were worked. "Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn, the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman Period" by Arthur M. MacGregor, Croom Helm (London & Sydney)/Barnes and Noble (Totawa NJ), 1985


Types of Bones

Tali bones
The talus is a bone found in the knee area of the front shank. It can be found by cutting into the protective sheathing around the joint of the knee - it is the only small and complete bone in the knee area; the other bones are simply the ends of the two long bones of the leg. The shape is difficult to describe. There is an image on the Roman Board Games page (permission granted to link directly to this image). Otherwise, it is roughly rectangular, pinkish and white in color, and has a "S" curve to its profile. Turning it over in the hand will show a possible four sides it can land on when tossed, as well as two rounded edges (the top and bottom of the S).

Much of this description is more intuitive when you are looking at a possible specimen for identification.

Phalanx Bones
Each lamb foot has two bones that are longer than they are wide, with uniform edges. They are roughly an inch-and-a-half to two inches in length and about the diameter of a slim finger. These are the phalanx bones. If you look at them, they have four sides they can land on with a central stem or tube that can be carved with markings. They are much more regularly shaped than a talus bone, and therefore make better dice than said bone.

At any rate, they could be used for the modern children's game of "Jacks". They are sized to fit well in a child's hand.


Sources of Bones

If you live in suburban American society (as I do), it's not likely that there is a surplus of sheep in your neighborhood. The most likely source is a butcher shop. That's the place to go to find sheep legs (or, more specifically, lamb legs). I happened to go "searching" just a month or two before the big Easter rush to order boneless leg of lamb at my local shop. John, our butcher, saved legs for me from Febuary through May. Unfortunately, not every "leg" included the front knee joint, or, I would have collected even more bones than I did. I still managed to come up with enough knucklebones to make five or six sets of four.

Either the local butcher shop or a supermarket should be willing to save at least a few leg bones for you, IF you ask nicely. You need the front shank, including both the foot and the knee joint. This will give you access to both types of bones used for dice.

If lambs are not available, try goat shanks. Stick to young goats if possible...those legs are long enough! You'd be most likely to find surplus goat shanks at a shop located in a Greek or Turkish neighborhood.

Other than that, I'm not sure what sort of animals have the same overall leg anatomy that would result in knee bones and toe bones. Perhaps deer or cows. I believe pig knucklebones were recovered from digs (meaning they have that bone). I would look into animals with "cloven" or split hooves to start :).


Bone Cleaning

Use a very sharp boning knife to remove the bones you need from the limb. Be sure to remove any excess cartilage or shreds of flesh. Always practice basic knife and kitchen safety.

The bones can be cleaned a number of different ways.

After doing any of these methods, you may have to remove extra "shreds" of flesh. I tried a combination of the above methods, and found that bleaching the bones overnight, then boiling them in sal soda for about twenty minutes was the best method to get clean, white bones. If you overboil the bones, they will dry out, and the outer calcium covering will flake away. They are still usuable if this occurs.

All About Sal Soda
Provided by: Ifor of Gwent (BarkerT@logica.com)
BarkerT@logica.com

Sal soda is sodium carbonate, the same chemical as washing soda. Sodium carbonate typically comes in three forms - washing soda is the decahydrate, which is usually in the form of colourless crystals that look a bit like crushed ice. If left in the open air, these lose water and become the powdery white monohydrate (the sal soda mentioned above). Soda ash is the anhydrous compound.

Sodium carbonate an alkali, so it will be good for stripping away greasy substances such as fat and marrow. Don't use it with aluminium vessels or cutlery, and try to keep it off your hands, though it's not as nasty as sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) which is often used for unblocking drains.


Antler Dice

According to the MacGregor book mentioned above, dice were commonly carved out of antler. You would need the base of the antler to be sawn into a cube shape. The six sides could then be marked with dots or "pips" like modern dice. These dice could be used for board games or for gambling games. If you're looking to buy or trade for the right section of antler, it's called a "rosette". You can purchase antler tines or rosettes for carving from Moscow Hide and Fur.

Bone Marking

The most effective way to mark bones for tossing is to use a Dremel-Moto™ or flex-shaft drill bit. You can carve the appropriate numbers or symbols into the bone easily, without damaging the bone or the carving implement. You could also paint the symbols into place. Permenent markers work in a pinch.

The dice I collected were marked with the numbers 1, 3, 4, and 6 in Roman numerals (I, III, IV, VI). Because we're basing our game playing on Roman sources (and Roman forms of dice have been recovered from British and Irish Celtic digs), we have used Roman conventions whenever possible. I would personally be interested in learning of any information on Celtic rules for dice games, as well as the Oghamic numbering system.

Which specific sides the various numbers were marked on were chosen basically at random. However, once a specific side was determined for each numeral, all following dice have been marked the same way. What this means is, that since the dice are naturally "biased" to land on particular faces, since everyone plays with the same dice during a particular sitting, there is no "unfair" advantage to one player or another.


Rules of Play

Within the clann, we use the Roman rules for Tali as posted at the Roman Board Games site on the Tali & Tropia page.

A quick breakdown of these rules and our adaptions:

If you look at the rules on the Roman Board Games site, and the table of rolls results, you will see a conflict. The text rules state: "Numerical values did not have precedent over a Venus, the Vultures, or a Senio". The table of rolls shows the highest to lowest rolls, and does in fact seem to give precedence to numerical rolls. We choose to honor the text rules rather than the chart when we play.

For variation, we have been known to play with five Tali and use poker rules modified for the numerical variations. Some combinations do not appear (flush, straight) when you are not using standard suits or numerical ranges.


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Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2000 8:46:11 PM