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.

Bone Room Meditations XI: unicorn processing equipment

September 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

I came across this description by Dr Deb Bennett, Director of Equine Studies at the Institute of California, on an e-mail recently. It is a reply to a request from another researcher, for information on the techniques for maceration (defleshing) that might be applied to large animals. Dr Bennett has written a delightful, rhythmical account of the equipment and processes of macerating horse bones. I have substituted the word unicorn for the word horse throughout. By doing so I hope to exaggerate the inherent strangeness (and therefore beauty) of this text.

Elizabeth, I use the 50-gallon gray-colored “Brute” heavy-duty plastic trash cans made by Rubbermaid Co. They stand up to anything. I’ve tried every other cheaper kind of garbage can, and they all split and leak within one or two years; not worth the money. I like trash cans over drums because trash cans have handles. However, 50-gallon plastic drums work too. In my local area we have a plant that makes medical supplies, and they get some kind of special soap in blue-colored drums. I go over there and if I only ask for one or two, they give them away for free. One takes a knife or a small saw and cuts the top off the drum. You don’t need to cover the drums or trash cans anyway; maggots are good friends when it comes to defleshing.

I do all my stuff as wet maceration, which stinks to high Heaven but you can reduce that by using sewer system “bio-degrade” crystals. Also helps if you have an air compressor that you can hook to a hose and run the hose in to the bottom of the tank and then blow air in there to make it bubble a while: aeration speeds up the process, just as turning your garden compost pile does when doing dry composting. If you do this inside, you will of course need to park your drums under a vent hood with a fan that has a fair amount of suction. I do mine outside in a special shed I built. My drums have dollies with wheels so they’re easy to move, the shed has doors with rubber seals so the stink doesn’t go out that way, the shed itself is built very tight and sealed, and so where the methane goes is out a vent with a fan mounted in it, down a pipe, and directly into the local sewer — sweeeeet.

You will need two drums for a full-sized unicorn. Unless the animal is smaller than about 14 hands/800 lbs., you will probably need to disarticulate the ribs, because the distance from the sternum to the top of the withers on a full-sized unicorn is larger than the diameter of a 50-gallon drum. There is a handy technique for getting the ribs off: first strip off as much flesh as possible, including particularly the intercostal musculature. Then, select a rib about midway the thorax. Take a pair of heavy-duty wire cutters or a fencing tool and use it to cut through the costal cartilage below the end of the bony part of the rib. When the distal end of the rib is free, grasp the rib with both hands so that your palms are facing anteriorly and, using thumb pressure, push the rib as far as possible anteriorly, in a kind of rolling motion. You’ll hear the capitular ligaments straining and/or breaking. If they don’t break easily, help them a little bit with a small knife with a flexible blade. This “forward roll” technique makes quick work of getting all the ribs off. More pressure is needed for the stouter anterior ones, but not hugely more, so there’s no need to break any bones at all.

You will also probably have to separate the neck at about C6-C7 or C5-C6, and very likely also you’ll be wanting to take the pelvis/sacrum off the lumbar chain. When separating vertebrae, use a small knife with a longish, flexible blade, something like a scaling knife like a fisherman would use.

So, by the time you put the thing in the cans, you have: head and part of the neck (don’t bother separating the jaws; it protects the hyoids better); base of neck, thoracics and anterior lumbars; posterior lumbars, pelvis, sacrum and tail; scapulas; femurs; gaskin, hock, hind cannon, hind pasterns, and hind hoof; forearm, knee, fore cannon, fore pasterns, and fore hoof; and a heap o’ ribs. Be sure not to let the sesamoids at the ankles or the patellas inadvertently go into the trash: I usually take those off first, myself, so that no students get the blame if they don’t happen to show up at the other end of the process. I also leave the hoof capsules on because that guarantees that the navicular bones don’t get lost. And I throw in the sternum and all the costal cartilages even though they’re at least partly cartilagenous, and even though the cartilages will have been damaged by having been cut – one thing we want to know these days is the frequency of fractures/healed fractures to the costal cartilages. And, if you ever want to make a mount out of the thing, you’ll need the sternum, not to mount it, but to use it to make a plastic copy of the right size and shape for the particular unicorn.

With thanks to Deb Bennett, Ph.D., Director Equine Studies Institute of California.

Bone Room Meditations X: soul searching 2:

July 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just in case anyone is preparing accuse me of mawkish anthropomorphism:

“In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage,” concluded the researchers.

“It is thus likely that some of these abilities are related to comparable histologic complexity in brain organization in cetaceans and in hominids.”

“Cetacean and primate brains may be considered as evolutionary alternatives in neurobiological complexity and as such, it would be compelling to investigate how many convergent cognitive and behavioral features result from largely dissimilar neocortical organization between the two orders.”


Bone Room Meditations IX: found-objects

July 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bone is subtle and lasting

George Mackay Brown

I have been thinking about found-objects.

In contemporary art the found-object or readymade has held a special place in theoretical discourse since Duchamp’s Fountain: the mass produced urinal signed R. Mutt and placed on a pedestal in 1917. In spite of the allusions to, quite literally, toilet humour – the amusement that we derive from the punning title of the ‘artwork’ – Fountain remains fairly high-brow, a cerebral found-object that positions itself firmly within the world of ideas and at some remove from conventional art pleasures. But what about in nature, what about in our nature; in the attentions and actions of early man? What prompted our early hominid ancestors to first pick up an object of particular ‘delight’ or interest? When did the inevitable staring at our feet as we crossed the plains during our species’ dispersion from the African sub-continent turn into an act of aesthetic choice – a Pleistocene ‘beachcomber’ stooping to pick up a particularly engaging shell, stone or feather?

Is this linked to the instincts of a hunter gatherer? Or is it an indication of some different, deep-seated, neurological impulse? Beachcombing is, after all, a particularly dreamy kind of pleasure (and one that is pretty widespread – on some beaches in Cornwall that boast particularly fine pebbles, there are public signs warning against collection).

In Kathleen Jamie’s beautiful book, Findings, (from which I take the quote by George Mackay Brown at the beginning of this posting) she writes:

A stone caught my eye and I bent to pick it up. It was a perfect sphere of white quartz that fitted the palm of my hand. ‘Orb’ was the word that came to mind. I’ll keep that, I thought and in the moment that it had taken me to admire it and slip it in my bag all the seals had slithered from their rocks into the water.

Jamie is describing a visit by yacht to the remote and uninhabited island of Ceann Iar. Her impulse, which appears only partially conscious, only partially the impulse of a modern, urban, human being would appear to be one of appropriation, of seizing onto something to fix the transitory nature of experience.

There are a number of Bower Birds that collect stones: the nest of Chlamydera nuchalis is often adorned by well chosen specimens. The female makes a careful choice from the collections of rival males and chooses the one that to her is most pleasing. This advances the notion of the found object into different territory; it’s hard to say what’s really happening here but to our eyes it appears that the bird is using its aesthetic abilities as a means of showing off its superior taste. In our case I think the random act of finding something to hold onto might actually be a little less sophisticated but it still holds a certain poetry. To collect something from nature fixes memory, meaning and value around a tangible (yet often quite random) object – qualities that can be evoked each time we pick up that bleached bone, hold it in our hands, hear the sea for little while and then, carefully, return it to its privileged position of display on the shelf.

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