In my quest to learn everything about bone, over the past three years I have visited at least 100 museums on four continents as well as scoured additional museums’ on-line collections and untold numbers of books and journal articles. Recently I spent a day in Oxford, England, visiting two anthropology museums, a natural history museum, and a history of science museum. In each, I found interesting bone objects but really nothing I had not seen before. Therefore with low expectations, I stopped by the Museum of Oxford.
The museum was undergoing renovation (“refreshments” in British parlance), but they had set up a temporary micro-museum in a large room at the Oxford Town Hall. It had no ticket counter or guard and just two or three other visitors. One case displayed several bone needles and an ice skate made from a horse or cow cannon bone, examples of which I had seen before.
Then I saw a surprise–a three-foot square slab laid flat on a waist-high display case. The shapes of the pieces creating this large mosaic immediately revealed their source—the ends of cannon bones from large animals. (For a description of it, see my previous post, The versatile cannon bone. What is it?)
The bones had been cut in half, placed vertically, and mortared in place to form a pavement of, well, cobblebones. Archaeologists had unearthed the surface at nearby Park End Street and dated it to the 1700’s. At that time the area was a shambles, now an obsolete word for an open-air slaughter house and meat market.
It all fits. Butchers would have little use for cannon bones because they have virtually no meat outside and no marrow inside. So, possibly to get relief from the muddy street, some enterprising soul cut the otherwise useless, readily available, and extremely hard cannon bones in half and paved away.
No one seems to know what fraction of the entire pavement the museum’s section constitutes, so more cobblebone may be resting under adjacent modern buildings. Since returning home, I have discovered that archaeologists have recorded 16 similar examples from Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all of them from the Oxford area and many from private dwellings, so it seems like cobblebone underfoot was a unique local tradition.