The mystery of Etruscan 4 and 6

This week is all about numbers (specifically the number 270). As we all sit here waiting for the counting to happen, I thought I’d share one of the most intriguing little pieces of detective work in Etruscan studies: the number system.

As we’ve discussed before, it’s not difficult to read Etruscan – we know what sounds all the letters represent. The difficult thing is finding out the meanings of the various words, and for abstract concepts like numbers, that can be particularly difficult. If you see a sentence like ‘Larth Tetnies had ci children’, you can’t possibly know what ci means, apart from that it’s a number (and probably not the number 300, for example).

By comparing evidence from lots of different sources, there was more or less a consensus about which were the words for the numbers one to six, and the exact words for one, two, three and five: θu, zal, ci and maχ. Four and six continued to be a problem because of conflicting evidence. In the Tomb of the Charuns at Tarquinia (image on this site), there is a painting of four Charuns (underworld gods), and next to the fourth one it says χarun huθs. A lot of people took this to mean ‘the fourth Charun’, making huθ the word for ‘four’. But there were some other inscriptions where huθ seemed more likely to be ‘six’, so the debate continued.

So how have linguists and archaeologists figured out the remaining numbers? The answer lies in dice. The method is laid out in this 2011 article by Artioli, Nociti and Angelini. Most ancient dice have ‘pips’ or dots to indicate the numbers, like modern dice. Although in theory there are 15 possible ways to arrange the numbers on a die, in practice Etruscan dice only ever do it in one of two ways. Those made earlier than about 500 BCE put 1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4 and 5 opposite 6. Those made later than about 350 BCE use the Roman system, which we still use today, putting 1 opposite 6, 2 opposite 5 and 3 opposite 4. Those made between the two dates use a mixture of the two systems. (There are a couple of ‘trick’ dice with two fives, probably used for cheating.)

But how does this help with the words for numbers? Well, it wouldn’t really, except that there are two dice with the numbers written out as words. They look something like this:

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are good at spatial reasoning, you’ll be able to figure out from this flattened plan which words are opposite each other. They go:

  • θu opposite huθ
  • zal opposite maχ
  •  ci opposite śa

Now, as we’ve said, scholars already knew from other sources that ci had to be ‘three’. So it doesn’t even matter whether these dice are using the ‘old’ system or the ‘Roman’ system, because three should always be opposite four. These dice therefore strongly suggest that śa is four and huθ is six.

You would think that this would be the end of this debate, but it isn’t. Some scholars still insist that the evidence from the dice isn’t enough to override the other evidence that huθ is four. A dice can be arranged in any order you like, they argue, so there’s no reason for this one to be the same as all the others. Of course, those who thought that huθ was six all along are very happy with the results. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “The mystery of Etruscan 4 and 6

Add yours

  1. I gave a presentation on Etruscan a few years before the article you link to was published – not my own research, just reporting what other people had said. And someone had done a survey of ancient dice, not the more specific focus on dice from Etruria. And this showed very small numbers of dice which had unusual pairings of numbers. So I guess that is what nay-sayers really on.


  2. I remember Dr John Wilkins telling our Cardiff Latin class in 1962 that the riddle had been solved: he must have meant his article “Etruscan numerals.” Transactions of the Philological Society 61.1 (1962): 51-79. Clearly there’s still an issue.


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