Bone Room Meditations XVII: Articulate – Articulated

January 21, 2013 § Leave a comment


Adjective: (of a person or person’s words) having the ability to speak fluently and coherently.


Adjective: 1) having two or more sections connected by a flexible joint. 2) (of an idea or feeling) expressed; put into words …

A significant amount of my time has been spent in museum bone stores. Here I have observed – in plain, buff coloured cardboard boxes with neat, hand-written labels – the boxed-up bone-kits that might one day offer the pieces that curators need to construct the delicate, articulated skeletons of zoological specimens for museum display. This they may do, with careful hands, if the educational value of such constructions is deemed to justify the allocation of necessary funding …

The larger animal bones generally spread their load over a number of shelves – sometimes half of a horse, for example, will sit next to a hippo or in some other such unlikely juxtaposition; like so much disjointed, chimerical Airfix. Smaller animals (such as amphibians) occupy their own, individual, cardboard boxes – little rectilinear sarcophagi, with terse inscriptions.

Some of this material is effectively redundant – it might not see the light of day for decades between museum audits. But it might also provide the much-needed building blocks from which we could articulate our bestiary of skeletal beasts.

What would be the moral implications of plundering these carcasses? Is it really fair that all of this wondrous substance should be locked away in the dark? Surely a little creative articulation, a little jointing together of new ‘zoological ideas’ might offer a use – and a new value – for all of this piled up bone?


Bone Room Meditations XVI: Ignis Ossium

November 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ignis Ossium (Black and White I), acrylic media, mica and gesso on canvas

But ere I die, those foul idolaters
Shall make me bonfires with their filthy bones…
Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (Pt 1: Act 3, scene 3)

In the ancient druid religions, bonfires were held between 31 October and 5 November to celebrate Samhain, a harvest festival where they used bonfires – ” bone fires” – to burn the bones of the slaughtered livestock they had prepared and stored for the winter months. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.

With thanks to Dr Jacqui Mulville

New Blog – Origin011

November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Osteography readers might also be interested in my new blog/online sketchbook:

The focus remains on human-animal relationships; with drawings that have been created in response to more ‘fleshy’ themes …

Any comments will be most welcome.

Bone Room Meditations XV: Open to Interpretation

December 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

On Friday 17th December I presented work from Osteography to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference in Bristol.

Part of the presentation consisted of  a picture quiz during which the audience was asked for their interpretations of sketches from the pages of this blog.

Some of these interpretations are quite poetic.

The first question was: Why would you bind the Head of a dog?

A clue was provided by the following image (Sketchbook Page 2 from this blog):

Canis familiaris (from Peruvian notebooks)

Answers included:

To stop it barking at the dead?

To modify behaviour (or a bad drawing scale wire)

To make it aerodynamic (for racing)

The second question was: Why would someone inscribe an erotic carving onto a hare’s tooth?

A clue was provided by the following image (Sketchbook Page 16 from this blog):

Engraving on hare tooth

Answers included:

To make a necklace for a lover

Portable object, easily traded

Because it is difficult to do; using resources to display craftsmanship

The third and final question was: Why would you need two brains?

A clue was provided by the following image (Sketchbook Page 17 from this blog):

Bicranial Man (from Renaissance Sketchbook)

Answers included:

For both sides of the argument

Two minds are better than one

Many thanks to the audience at TAG for interpreting these drawings. Any further interpretations of these drawings (however creative) will be gratefully received.

Happy New Year!



Bone Room Meditations XVI: Illustrations of Archaeology/Archaeology of Illustrations

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

What’s the difference between what you do and what I do?

This was the question posed to me a couple of months ago by Ian Dennis, a very talented illustrator who works within the Cardiff University Department of Archaeology. To be honest I am still working hard to find a definitive answer. Ian and I have shared a number of very enjoyable conversations during my time in the Department, mostly over a pint or two, and it was during one of these conversations that he asked me this question.

Archaeological illustrations can be very beautiful. They reveal truths about the objects that they depict that might otherwise go unnoticed or, more importantly, unseen. This is one of the things that art does, it brings aspects of the none visible world into the light – or it controls nuances of meaning through nuances of visual emphasis.

There is also the fact that these illustrations almost always convey something of the identity of the artist/illustrator, something that might lie in the numberless subtle decisions made in the labour of shading, or perhaps within the slight variations in the width of a line that captures the unsteady operations of the nervous system; it’s not necessary, in other words, to dig deeply into the archaeology of these images to find evidence of the mind that made them.

Human Skull, engraving by William Miller

All drawings made by hand are the product of a peculiarly intimate relationship between an artist and a subject. They are unique records of a period of time spent in close observation. As such they all deserve to be treated as works of art.

So, what is the difference between what Ian does and what I do? Of course the big difference is that Ian makes drawings of objects that are real and I make drawings that are essentially chimera – little imaginary monsters constructed from fragments of ideas brought into juxtaposition. I am also in the privileged position of being allowed to use loose mark marking to create passages of ambiguity within my sketches. But are they really so different? All drawings exist to some degree in the world of the imagination, they all evoke rather than replace the object that they depict.

Third Eye - skull with supernumerary orbit

George Dickie defines a work of art as an artifact ‘which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting in behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)’. Which seems to be something of a tautology to me or, at the very least, a closed shop. The fact that conversations might happen regarding the status of archaeological illustration as art, and about the vitality and validity of human expression within this art form can only be to the good in my opinion.

Bone Room Meditations XIII: Shelf Marks (Part II – Order Carnivora, Family Felidae)

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

To the right of the sliding storage units holding the Narwhal bones, (see Bone Room Meditations XII: shelf numbers (Part I)) there are a series of very ordinary cardboard boxes. These hold the defleshed remains of a variety of cat species. Most of these specimens come from zoos, a fact which only serves to underline the contradictory nature of our relationship to these fearsomely robust yet tragically vulnerable predators; all of whom share much the same body template and most of the genetic heritage of the household tabby that purrs engagingly on your lap at home.

The first box that I opened contained the delicate bones of a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Jacqui pointed out the extraordinary, sculptural muscle attachments. The scapula had a waxy shell-like translucency. The skull was finely wrought and as light as a feather. This creature, operating as it does on the very limits of calorific economy, is a potent symbol of the dangers of over-specialisation. If the kill is not successful then what a price to pay, in calories, for the fastest animal on land … I am also reminded of the fact that  young cheetahs copy the songs of birds to disguise themselves from other cheetahs, their own cannibalistic nature offering a threat to the continued existence of this very ‘atypical’ species.

Next, the even more delicate skeleton of a juvenile snow leopard (Uncia uncia). Jacqui pointed out that the bones on the skull were not yet fused. This was a snow leopard kitten. There is something very poignant about this skeleton. The almost sacred emblem of a failure to breed this rare and beautiful creature in captivity.

Finally, the remains of a tiger (Panthera tigris).

One of the few animals that, if encountered in its own (dwindling) kingdom, we would really have to fear. This skeleton shows signs of osteoporosis; it is an old tiger that probably spent much of its life pacing within the confines of a man-made enclosure; living out its strange, unknowable, instinctive existence far from the jungles for which its powerful structure and sublimely beautiful markings (surely these markings are as beautiful to the tiger as they are to us?) have evolved.

Bone Room Meditations XII: Shelf Marks (Part I – Order Cetacea)

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

In October I visited the cetacean collection at the National Museum of Scotland.

Descending the stairs into the basement storage unit, it was immediately apparent that this would be no ordinary museum experience. Huge whale bones lay across the floor like so much dismantled fairground machinery. Many of them were painted grey, glossy oil oozing through the matt surface of the paint.

Jerry, the mammal curator, showed me the skull of the last right whale to be hunted from our shores (caught off St Kilda in 1916, he said, by Norwegian whalers based on Harris). The whale’s skull sat on the floor, its immense jaw describing a perfect sculptural arc, like some massive metal cradle. Crude, rusting attachments sprouted from the grey musky bone, relics of previous exhibition fixtures.

Next we examined the jaw of a sperm whale , caught in Indonesian waters, the whole thing polished like furniture. It truly was a fearsome sight – like some immense stone age weapon. The fearsome jaw of Moby Dick:

“So that in many cases such a panic did he finally strike, that few who by those rumours, at least, had heard of the White Whale, few of those hunters were willing to encounter the perils of his jaw”

Herman Melville MOBY DICK or The Whale

Perhaps to exorcise this terrible monster (the word cetacean comes from the Greek: Cetus, which means sea monster) a sailor had inscribed it with a delicate skrimshander featuring, on one side, a fine illustration of a living ‘Cachalot’ and on the other a drawing of the whaling ship that had carried back this prize to cooler waters.

Situated right next to this extraordinary specimen was the skull of another ‘Moby’. Found stranded on the North Sea coast , this was the whale that featured in Lucy Skear’s Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Modern in 2009. Such amazing mass, such a huge volume of latex-like, hard bone … oily to the touch, a greasy whale-oil residue still sitting on its surface. Layer upon layer of spongy growth was visible in the butter coloured cranium, truly humbling in comparison with my own diminutive head. The bone grew in complex, varied textures; in places like bark, in others like honeycomb, candle wax, flowstone or tufa … and it was warm and almost silky to the touch, more like hardened rubber than chill mineral.

Next, I wanted to see the Narwhal.

The Narwhal was situated in a sliding storage facility of the kind that has wheels to open it, like the wheels of a ship. When a number of these shelves are in motion, the wheels all spin with a ghostly independence. As the shelves parted, light spread onto the Narwhals tusks.

In the middle ages these beautiful, marble white, tapering, petrified ropes were considered to be a cure for melancholy. They were taken to be the horns of Unicorns.

There certainly was something magical about them … as if, by some charm, they had been turned to stone of an astonishing whiteness.

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