Roll of the dice…

A legal responsibility of every mudlark is to take anything they find over three hundred years of age to be checked and recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), in my case at the Museum of London. If the find is treasure, ie gold or silver, the Treasure Act of 1900 states that it needs to be recorded with the Coroner within a month of finding.

I’ve found gold, a small piece of beautifully and intricately worked filigree jewellery, while mudlarking at a location I can’t reveal. I dutifully took it to Stuart Wyatt, my FLO, who took it away with him for checking. Although definitely gold (I knew the minute I saw it peeking out of the ground that that’s what it was – gold can be buried in the earth for a million years and will still be golden and untarnished when it’s eventually discovered) Stuart couldn’t trace exactly what it had come from as it was too small a piece, but confirmed it was gold, possibly Victorian. The lack of clarity surrounding the provenance of the fragment meant that in this instance he didn’t have to notify the Coroner and I was able to keep the piece without the need for the copious paperwork that goes hand in hand when identified treasure is found, as opposed to a less valuable find.

At my next visit to the FLO I was thrilled when he took in one of my newer finds. Of no monetary value, like the vast majority of mudlarking finds, nonetheless this remains one of my favourite pieces; a tiny bone dice. (See centre of the photo below – the little silver pieces surrounding the dice are not from the foreshore but from the much used and loved family Monopoly set.)

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16th-18th Century cuboid bone dice found by me on the Thames Foreshore.

The dice was found by me, by eye, on a part of the foreshore where scraping, digging and metal detecting are forbidden unless you hold a more advanced Society of Mudlarks permit. I’m holding it in my fingers, turning it over, the once sharp edges now worn smooth by the river, and it feels light in my hand. Such a beautifully tactile object and I think about the person who carved it, those who played with it and the careless fingers that finally dropped in the Thames.

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My bone dice find, logged in July 2019 with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS.)

This is what it looks like when you have a find logged with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Once it’s confirmed as of historical importance by the FLO it’s then researched and recorded and the item, unless treasure, is given back to the finder.

It’s described as a Post Medieval bone cuboid dice dating from the 16th to 18th Century. The numbers are indicated by a single dot; they are arranged so the opposite sides adds up to 7. The sides are in the arrangement known as Potter’s variant 16.

Egan (1997:3) writes “A remarkable degree of uniformity is emerging in London for the most recent excavated dice, that is those of the 16th to 17th Century and later, first noticed among a group of over 40 of various sizes and with numbers indicated by double-circle-and-dot, circle-and-dot or dot alone, all of 17th to 18th Century date and found at the site of the Fleet Prison. These are all regular dice, and more remarkably, all of them that are complete enough to gauge are just one variety – Potter’s variant 16. They may well have been the output of a single prisoner turning meal bones into saleable goods.”

It’s quite extraordinary to think that the dice I’m rolling around in my fingers was quite probably made by the same prisoner who fashioned these from leftover bone in the Fleet prison all those centuries ago. Sadly it seems his name will never be known. I find myself wondering what crime he was charged with committing, how long he spent deprived of his freedom and the impact that would have had on his family and the rest of his life.

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Map showing the Fleet Prison.

The Fleet prison was originally built in 1197, near the side of the River Fleet, the area now is part of Farringdon Street. Once close to the Fleet Ditch, an open sewer, the area was filthy and unsanitary, the surrounding land being deemed perfect for the location of a prison. It was demolished and rebuilt several times. Destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London in 1666 (when it was engulfed in flames during the third day of the fire, the prisoners only just managing to escape) and was again destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780. It remained in use till 1844 and was sold to the Corporation of the City of London who finally demolished it in 1846.

Used primarily to incarcerate those who were charged and convicted of contempt of court by the Court of Chancery and also for those committed by the Star Chamber (a court that sat in the royal palace of Westminster from the late 15th Century to the mid 17th Century), in its latter years it was primarily used as a prison for debtors and bankrupts.

The Fleet Prison is memorably described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ Dickens’ own father, John, had himself been imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison (Southwark) on the 20th February 1824 under the Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813 because he owed a baker, John Kerr, forty pounds and ten shillings and was unable to pay. It was a shameful experience that haunted Charles Dickens throughout his life.

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Entrance to the Fleet Prison.

Prisons during the 18th Century were profit-making enterprises and so prisoners had to pay for food and lodging, and the Fleet was no exception. In fact it had the highest fees in England. Prisoners didn’t even have to live in the Fleet as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for the loss of earnings. From the 17th Century onwards the prison also became notorious for the carrying out of clandestine marriages by degraded clergymen, looking to earn some money on the side, and who themselves were imprisoned among the debtors and bankrupts. At a time when divorce was difficult and you wanted to marry someone else in secret, this was the place to come. Ditto if the bride was pregnant, or had already given birth, a wedding ceremony might take place in the Fleet and the certificate of marriage conveniently back-dated to before conception.

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Fleet Prison print: The Racquet Ground by Joseph Stadler, published 1808.

Prisoners would have struggled to find ways to pass the time while incarcerated in the Fleet so I can well imagine someone with skill trying to earn money by fashioning dice from leftover bones in order to make their sentence more tolerable.

Dice are the oldest gaming artefacts known to mankind and have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC. In Greek and Roman times they were made from bone, ivory, bronze, agate, marble and, much later, porcelain or clay. The Romans played two games with dice: Tali and Tesserae. Tali used four dice and the best score was when each die showed a different number. Tesserae was played with three dice and the best score was three sixes. The dice were thrown from a cup called a ‘fritillium’ and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. Roman dice are particularly keenly treasured by those mudlarks lucky enough to find them on the Thames Foreshore.

In later centuries cheating with dice became prolific, especially during the post Medieval period. Dodgy dice were known as ‘fullums’ or ‘fulhams’, named after Fulham in south west London, an area once notorious for the manufacture of loaded dice and clearly not the respectable part of south west London it is now.

‘Fullums’ were divided into two distinct types: high ones that would run to 4, 5 and 6, and low ones that ran to 1, 2 and 3. These were made by drilling tiny holes into the dice and filling it with quicksilver (mercury,) the holes were then plugged with pitch. Sometimes the corners would be discreetly filed in order to load the dice even more.

An entire vocabulary was created to describe the way professional cheats were able to fool the innocent and naïve during games of dice and ensure they won every time:

‘Topping’ – pretending to put both dice in a box but holding one between the fingers so that it could be turned to the cheater’s advantage, also known as ‘palming’

‘Slurring’ – throwing a dice smoothly onto the table so that it didn’t roll

‘Stabbing’ – using a rigged dice cup

‘Knapping‘ – throwing the dice so that one strikes another, stopping the bottom diced from tumbling

I’ll never know who used my dice find, what games they played with it or the circumstances in which they lost it, but I can assure everyone that it’s definitely not the loaded type. Light as a feather, an indication that thankfully it’s mercury free. I can use it when the family Monopoly board comes out at Christmas and holidays with a clear conscience.

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Group of cuboid bone dice found during excavations of the Fleet Prison, identical in design to mine. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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