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The Knucklebone Player

The Knucklebone Player

The Knucklebone Player

The Knucklebone Player depicts a young girl, possibly a nymph of Artemis playing with Knuckle-bones from 150 AD. This Ancient Roman marble figure was restored in the 18th century by the Italian sculptor Giuseppi Angelini (1735–1811).

The statue was probably adapted from a figure seated on a sea-shore or river-bank. The restoration included the head, hands and feet.

The Knucklebone Player statue was originally part of Charles Townley collection and he described it as:

“A recumbent figure of Diana, with close drapery, resting on her left hand, and advancing the right. upon the plinth is the bow, with heads of Griffins at the ends of it.”

The statue was discovery as 1764 in an ancient villa near the site of the Gardens of Sallust in Rome, Italy. The sculpture is also described by Townley as a ‘”fountain nymph.”

This statue is a similar to one that is now in Hanover and has been traditionally identified as one of pair playing knuckle-bones.

Some of the most common pre-historic and ancient gaming tools were made of bone, especially knucklebones. These bones were also sometimes used for oracular and divinatory functions.


Knucklebones is a game of ancient origin, usually played with five small objects. The modern version of the game is called Jacks and is plyed with ten objects.

Originally the “knucklebones” were the bone in the ankle of a sheep. They were used in the simplest form of the game which was to throw them up and catch them in various manners.

The winner is the first player to successfully complete a prescribed series of throws, which, though similar, differ widely in diferent verions of the game.

The origin of knucklebones is closely connected with that of dice, of which knucklebones is probably a more primitive form.

Sophocles, in a written fragment of one of his works, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War.

Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones.

The Knucklebone Player

Pastern bones of an animal, for games like Knucklebones 

There were two methods of playing in ancient times. The first, consisted in tossing up and catching the bones on the back of the hand, very much as the game is played today.

The second form of the game was one of pure chance, the Knucklebones or stone versions being thrown upon a table, and used as a form of dice. The values of the sides upon which they fell were counted.

The Greek name for the game was astragali. Four astragali were used and 35 different scores were possible in a single throw.

Many of these throws received distinctive names such as: Aphrodite, Midas, Solon, and Alexander. The highest throw in Greece was called the Euripides. The lowest throw was called the Dog.

Knucklebone Player

Charles Townley

Charles Townley (1737 – 1805) was a wealthy English country gentleman, antiquary and collector. He travelled on three Grand Tours to Italy, buying antique sculpture, vases, coins, manuscripts and Old Master drawings and paintings.

The antiquities collected by Townley, which now constitute the Townley Collection at the British Museum, consists of some 300 items and includes one of the great collections of Graeco-Roman sculptures and other artefacts.

The Knucklebone Player is part of the Townley Collection at the British Museum.

The Knucklebone Player

  • Artifact:                 The Knucklebone Player
  • Date:                     1st C-2nd Centuary
  • Material:                Marble
  • Culture:                 Roman
  • Dimensions:          Height: 63.50 centimetres
  • Type:                     Archaeological Artifact
  • Museum:              British Museum


How to play Knucklebones

A Virtual Tour of the British Museum

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Information on The British Museum

Learn how to play the Mongolian Ankle Bones game


Mongolian knuckle-bone shooting


“Let us live, since we must die.”
– Epicurean declaration


Photo Credit:1) Sarah Joy from United Kingdom / CC BY-SA (

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