During life, a goat’s knucklebones allow for ankle motion, which the goat finds useful but probably not fascinating. In their afterlife, however, knucklebones from goats and sheep have fascinated humans for thousands of years, probably beginning in ancient Egypt or in what is now western Turkey. Roughly rectangular, each bone is about the size of a hard candy. Four or five fit easily in the palm, and it is almost impossible not to jiggle them momentarily and roll them out—a thrill of touch, sight, sound, and … anticipation.
Although the ends are too small and rounded for them to stand straight up, the knucklebones’ four long sides are uniquely shaped, so the odds vary for one coming to rest on any given side. Without concern for how they landed, children played jacks with them or tossed them up and tried to catch them on the backs of their hands. By attributing different values for each landing surface, adults used them for gambling, hence the expression, “Roll the bones.” Fortune tellers attributed meaning to the landing positions both of the individual bones and their relationships to one another.
Kuncklebones’ ageless popularity for gaming and forecasting is apparent from their frequent presence in archaeological discoveries, with the objects both in their original osseous forms as well as reproductions made from metal or clay. Through the ages, sculptors, potters, and painters have recorded people’s fascination with knucklebones.
Cubic dice evolved from knucklebones and standardized the odds of a gaming piece landing on a given side. Other shapes ensued, from four sides to twenty sides and nearly every sidedness in between.
Goats and sheep are not the sole original possessors of knucklebones. Any hoofed animal with cannon bones (the topic of a previous blog post) has knucklebones. This includes horses and cattle. These, however, would be too large to jiggle and roll more than one, which would have made a game of Monopoly tediously slow.