The Bone Collector: Building A Personal Reference Collection

Although I guess you can say I’ve been a zooarchaeologist for the past 3 years, I’ve still been a bit behind when it comes to my own personal reference collection. It’s not a necessity for zooarchaeologists, of course, but it’s always good to have – plus, it’ll become important if you go into consulting work.

Some of the bones in my personal collection – yes, those are takeaway containers.

Of course, let me be clear that I’m not hunting animals down for their bones! Many zooarchaeologists with their own collections often come across remains in various ways – out in the wild, from a local farm, or in my case, from the nearest grocery store.

Every zooarchaeologist has their own personal method of processing remains, so I’m sure some would disagree with my tips. But for those who are working with bones for the first time, here’s a few pointers on processing:

  • Getting to Bare Bones

There’s many different ways to get down to the bones, and the method you should choose will depend on what you have left of the animal. Dermestid beetles are a quick and easy way to deflesh animals, but due to upkeep, are best left to professionals and labs who need large quantities of remains. Large, fleshy and furry remains may be buried or kept outside in a protected area to naturally deflesh, but this will take longer than other methods (and you obviously run the risk of certain living animals making off with your bones!). One of the more common methods of defleshing is through maceration – leaving remains in a closed container of water over a period of time until defleshed. If you feel like giving up a slow cooker, you could also slowly simmer the remains until the flesh can easily be removed. Fair Warning: this will smell extremely bad.

  • Getting All the “Bits” Off

The above methods will get most of the flesh off and allow for easier removal of the “squishy bits” inside. However, the body is a frustrating thing and there will still be smaller bits of tissue stuck in crevices and hard-to-reach areas. I recommend using a toothpick or cocktail stick to get “bits” out of the smaller crevices – it will take some time and probably be a little gross, but you want to be sure to get all those bits off before storage.

Additionally, biological washing up liquid such as Biotex can be used to clean and loosen up bits of soft tissue by soaking the bones in a mixture of the washing up liquid and water for a day or two.

  • Degreasing the Bones

This is an easy step to miss! Its important to degrease the bones, otherwise they will get gross…trust me. I forgot to degrease some turkey bones and they ended up growing mould after a few days in storage. Yuck. probably the easiest way to degrease bones is by leaving them in a solution of water + dish washing liquid.

  • Whitening the Bones

As a zooarchaeologist, I don’t really care much about whitening bones (I have never seen a white bone in my life, except for cremated bone fragments). If you do want to whiten your bones, however, most people suggest soaking bones in a mixture of hydrogen peroxide + water.

  • On Boiling and Bleach

When it comes to collecting bones, there are two bad “B” words: boiling and bleach. Both can damage and ruin your bones, so it’s best to substitute simmering for boiling and a hydrogen peroxide/water mixture for bleach.

That said…I am a very bad zooarchaeologist who has often boiled bones from animals that have already been cooked in order to 1) get all of the remaining meat and bits off and 2) make a nice bone broth to use for soups later on (blame my grad student thriftiness – nothing gets wasted!). I will still do a final wash of these bones with water + biological washing up liquid and degrease after boiling. These bones are usable, but they certainly don’t look as nice as my non-boiled bones and definitely have some damage, so I would suggest you don’t boil them. That said, it is possible to salvage the bones if you have already boiled them.

And a final important note: many countries have different laws regarding the collection of remains from certain species – make sure you double check that you can legally collect and keep the bones you have!

Some processed bones in my personal collection from a bantam chicken.
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