For many, winter ice means at least aggravation, if not slips and falls; but ice facilitates travel for some and provides amusement for others—practices that range back at least 4000 years and which were facilitated by bone.  

Inuits found it easier to dogsled on ice than either to walk on tundra or to paddle on water. Today, dogsled runners (and skis and snowboards), have plastic-covered gliding surfaces that minimize friction. Inuits, however, had to improvise with the hardest, smoothest material they had available: bones, which likely came from caribou shins or possibly from whale ribs. Craftsmen cut them into flat strips and drilled holes through them. Then using a leather thong, they lashed the bone segments to the sled’s runners. Away they slid.

Others borrowed the technology. For instance, Robert Perry made an expedition to Greenland in 1891-1892. On his ship’s first approach to land, its rudder hit some ice. The out-of-control tiller struck Perry’s lower leg and broke both bones. Perry had to stay in camp the next six months to heal while team members made short forays into the unknown. The second year, using dogsleds equipped with traditional bone-clad runners, Perry mushed far enough north to determine that Greenland was an island.

Arrows indicate bone-cladding on the runners

Farther east and about four millennia earlier, enterprising Northern European travelers thought, “We don’t need sleds or dogs. Those are a lot of work and extra mouths to feed. We can just tie bones to our boots.” Away they skated–first as a means of winter transportation and later for amusement.

At various archaeology sites in Great Britain and Scandinavia, cannon bones from the legs of horses and cattle have shown up, drilled through to accept thong laces and smoothed to glide on ice.

Cannon Bone Skates
Above: Museum of London
Below: Stockholm Source

William FitzStephen, clerk to Thomas Becket and chronicler of twelfth-century London life wrote:

Others …. fit to their feet the shin-bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with iron-shod poles in their hands, they strike ever and anon against the ice and are borne along swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a mangonel (catapult).

FitzStephen may have anticipated hockey checking when he continued:

But sometimes two by agreement run one against the other from a great distance, and raising their poles, strike one another. One or both fall, not without bodily harm, since on falling they are borne a long way in the opposite directions by the force of their own motion; and wherever the ice touches the head, it scrapes and skins it entirely.

Four centuries later, ice skating technology had improved, at least marginally. Olaus Magnus observed:  

The rest are outrun by those competitors in the race who attach to the soles of their feet the shin-bones of deer thoroughly smoothed and greased with pork fat.  

Another bone-aided ice escapade combined elements of sledding and skating, which several sixteenth-century artists depicted. It would be a tight fit even for a small child, but feasible, since a horse’s jawbone is almost eighteen inches long. (Cow jawbones are shorter.) The operator is practically sitting on the ice, the safest place to be considering how slippery it is.

Bottom line: bones do glide nicely on ice, just take care that the bones doing the sliding are not yours.

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