Bonetool Archives 2018

December 2018

Some bones of the haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), a fish of the Gadidae family, tend to grow to an extraordinary thickness. This kind of bone growth, called hyperostosis, is at present regarded as a non-pathological and „harmless neoplasm“ although the reason for its development remains unclear. Especially the cleithrum, a large skeletal element of the shoulder girdle, can grow to an extremely thick and compact piece of bone (fig. 1; Harland & van Neer 2018, 257-258, von den Driesch 1994, 37-38, 42, 44, tab. 1, fig. 2).

Fig. 1: Cleithrum and posttemporale of haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) showing hyperostosis (from von den Driesch 1994, 38, fig. 2).

In Iceland haddock cleithra have been used as raw materials for bone carvings through the centuries. The oldest examples known so far have been recovered inbetween tephra layers from 877 ±1 AD and 938 ±6 AD (Tom McGovern pers. com. 4.12.2018). There are several simple gaming pieces as well as partially worked haddock cleithra from Sveigakot in Myvatnssveit. One unfinished gaming piece (fig. 2 left) and two simple domically shaped gaming pieces from 10th-12th century AD layers have been published by Batey (2005, 353, fig. 2-3).

The site of Steinbogi, also in Myvatnssveit, yielded a 12th-13th century chess piece of a king (fig. 2 right; Batey 2005, 353, fig. 4; 2011, 65; Larusdottir et al. 2012, 22).

Fig. 2: haddock cleithra carvings; left: half-finished gaming piece from Sveigakot, Iceland (inv. no. SVK-00200; from Batey 2005, 353, fig. 2; photo: Tom McGovern); right: king chess piece from Steinbogi, Iceland (from Batey 2005, 353, fig. 4; photo: Tom McGovern).

An even more remarkable chess piece, a warrior with a shield, was found at the farm and fishing station of Siglunes in Siglufjörður in 2011 inbetween tephra layers from 1104 and 1300 (fig. 3 left; Larusdottir et al. 2012, 22). Noteworthy here is that this piece shows stylistic similarities to the rooks of the famous Lewis chessmen, which are made of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) and spermwhale (Physeter macrocephalus) ivory (Brown 2016, 19, 231-233, 267; Thorarinsson 2014, 214-215, fig. 13; 2017, 8, 48) and have been stylistically dated into the 12th century (for more information about the Lewis chessmen see also Caldwell et al. 2014; Caldwell & Hall 2014; Robinson 2012; Stratford 1997; Taylor 1994).

A chess piece similar to the Siglunes one, but smaller, has been found in Kongshavn, Norway. This is the only haddock bone carving found outside of Iceland I am aware of so far. The piece is similar in style to a 13th century wooden rook from Trondheim (Henriksen et al. 2011, 200-201; Larusdottir et al. 2012, 22).

A very elaborate turned chess piece, in this case made of (whale) bone, was found during the 2008 season at Gufuskálar, Snaefellsnes (fig. 3 right). It is 28 mm high and 15 mm wide and weighs 6,2 g. Mark Hall of the Perth Museum preliminary interpreted it as a chess king and dated it to the 14th-15th century, judged by features of its design (Pálsdottir 2009, 33-34, 45, fig. 1). The piece came from a 15th-16th century deposit (C-14 dated to 1420-1520 AD; Lilja Pálsdottir pers. com. 5.12.2018).

The Gufuskálar excavation yielded also several haddock cleithra from 15th-16th century deposits, which are „partially carved and look to be abandoned as if the carver made a mistake and decided to start over“ (Frank Feeley pers. com. 4.12.2018). Feeley also noticed that „haddock cleithra are rarely found whole. Generally, the beefy end part is separated and many have some rough cutting marks on them“. His hypothesis is that „the cleithra are an important raw material for crafting a variety of small objects, so they get prepared as blanks and maybe stored away until needed“.

Fig. 3: left: chess rook from Siglunes, Iceland carved out of a haddock cleithrum (from Larusdottir et al. 2012; photo: Howell M. Roberts); right: turned whale bone chess piece from Gufuskálar, Iceland (find no. 08-005; from Pálsdottir et al. 2009, 33, fig. 1).

Given the still not settled question of the origin of the Lewis chessmen – Trondheim in Norway and Skálholt in Iceland being two hypotheses – an interesting detail are some Hanseatic documents proving that chess pieces have been exported from Iceland in the 17th century. Three historic documents in the Staatsarchiv Hamburg confirm that Asmus Schulte, Hanseatic merchant from Hamburg and elderman of the confraternity of the Iceland farers, imported a chess game from Iceland to Hamburg in 1637 (Piper 1999). The raw material of the pieces is unfortunately not mentioned.

The tradition to carve items out of haddock Cleithra persisted at least until the early 20th century as can be seen by various 18th-20th century figurines published by Kristjánsson (1985, 442-447, fig. 450-453; see also Batey 2005, 354-355, fig. 5-7). A collection of early modern cleithra carvings depicting mostly sea birds and seals is exhibited in the Pakkhús Museum in Olafsvik, Snaefelsnes (Frank Feeley pers. com. 4.12.2018).

Fig. 4: 19th-20th century shark and seal figurines from Iceland carved from haddock cleithra (from Kristjánsson 1985, 445, fig. 451; photo: Gudmundur Ingolfsson).

Hans Christian Küchelmann

Batey, Colleen (2005): From raw material to finished product: resources and resourcefulness in the North Atlantic. in: Luik, Heidi / Choyke, Alice M. / Batey, Colleen / Lougas, Lembi (eds.): From Hooves to Horns, from Mollusc to Mammoth – Manufacture and Use of Bone Artefacts from Prehistoric Times to the Present – Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Worked Bone Research Group at Tallinn, 26th–31st of August 2003, 351-358
Batey, Colleen (2011): Ýsubein til yndis Upp á yfirborðið. Nýjar rannsóknir í íslenskri fornleifafræði, Reykjavík
Brown, Nancy Marie (2016): Ivory Vikings. The Mystery of the most famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who made them, New York
Caldwell, David H. / Hall, Mark A. / Wilkinson, Caroline M. (2014): The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked, reprint, Edinburgh
Caldwell, David H. & Hall, Mark A. (2014): The Lewis Chessmen. New Perspectives, Edinburgh
Coleman, Wendi & McGovern, Thomas H. (2018): Walrus, Great Auks, Seals, Cod, and Trout: Provisioning Landnám In Iceland, presentation at the Oceans Past Platform VII conference, Bremerhaven, 24. 10. 2018
Harland, Jennifer F. & van Neer, Wim (2018): Weird Fish: Defining a Role for Fish Pathology. in: Bartosiewicz, László & Gál, Erika (eds.): Care or Neglect? Evidence of Animal Disease in Archaeology. Proceedings of the 6th meeting of the Animal Palaeopathology Working Group of the International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ), Budapest, Hungary, 2016, 256-275, Oxford
Henriksen, J. / Nordby / Oschman (2011): Artifacts: The finds retrieved. in: Olsen, Björnar / Urbanczyk, Przemyslaw / Amundsen, Colin (eds.): Hybrid spaces. Medieval Finnmark and the Archaeology of Multi-Room Houses, Oslo, 181-206
Kristjánsson, Lúdvík (1985): Íslenzkir Sjávarhættir IV, 2nd reprint, Reykjavik
Lárusdottir, Birna / Roberts, Howell M. / Porgeirsdóttir, Sigrídur (2012): Siglunes. Archaeological investigations in 2011, Reykjavik
Pálsdottir, Lilja Björk / Sigurgeirssyni, A. / Daxböck, Astrid / Stott, David (2009): Fornleifakönnun á verbúðarleifum á Gufuskálum, Snæfellsnesi Bráðabirgðaskýrsla, Reykjavik
Piper, Kurt Friedrich Christian (1999): Ein Archivfund zur Geschichte des Schachspiels in Island. – Island 5(1), 46
Robinson, James (2012): The Lewis Chessmen, reprint, London
Stratford, Neil (1997): The Lewis Chessmen and the enigma of the hoard, London
Taylor, Michael (1994): The Lewis Chessmen, reprint, London
Thórarinsson, Gudmundur G. (2014): The Lewis chessmen: the Icelandic theory. in: Caldwell, David H. & Hall, Mark A. (eds.): The Lewis Chessmen. New Perspectives, 200-218, Edinburgh
Thórarinsson, Gudmundur G. (2017): The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen. The Icelandic Theory, 4th edition, Reykjavik
von den Driesch, Angela (1994): Hyperostosis in fish. in: van Neer, Wim (ed.): Fish Exploitation in the Past. Proceedings of the 7th Meeting of the ICAZ Fish Remains Working Group, Annalen Zoologische Wetenschapen 274, 37-45, Tervuren

November 2018

This months bonetools are some fragments of tooth brushes from Jerusalem, Israel, probably dating to the late Ottoman period or the time of the British Mandate (19th – 20th century AD). The brushes were found during the Temple Mount sifting project, a project were tourists, students, etc. sift earth that was illegally excavated out from the mountain when renovations were made in the lower levels of the mosque there. Naturally, being out of their archaeological context, these brushes and the other finds from the sifting project have very little chronological significance.

In the past few years I did get to see a few such brushes come out from excavations of 19th-early 20th century contexts. A few have inscriptions on the handle: „EXTRA FINE ARTS“ or „EXTRA FINE ARTS. PARIS“, and I believe they were first imported here by Europeans (American/German colonies, British soldiers, and of course Jews who came to settle).

Some of the brushes do have incised grooves on the back (see pictures below left) and some of them do not (see pictures below right). I learned that these grooves relate to the method in which the tufts were inserted and attached to the stock. The brushes with incised grooves had a copper wire drawn through the grooves to hold the tufts in place. The incisions were then filled with something like enamel or cement or some other pasty material to hide the copper wire and the groove. In some brushes the filling paste is exactly the same color as the bone and you can’t really know its there. In others the wire and the filling paste is easier to see.

Further information on the history of tooth brushes can be found in Mattick (2009) and on the website of the Virtual Dental Museum.

Ariel Shatil


Mattick, Barbara E. (2009)
: A Guide to Bone Toothbrushes of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Bloomington

October 2018

Cinder container from Maisach-Gernlinden, Germany. A: xray of artefact showing silex (B) in situ. Photos: T. Stöckl.

This unusual object has been found in a grave at Maisach-Gernlinden (Bavaria, Germany). The object was part of the grave goods of grave GER-4736 in which a probably male individual was buried. The object was found in the foot area together with a brooch and a Roman military belt. According to the latter two objects the deceased was obviously a member of the Late Roman military of the end of the 4th century AD.

The artefact is made out deer antler and has a size of 11,6 x 3,7 x 3,8 cm. It is a container closed with a lid and decorated with triangles. Inside the container a silex and charcoal were found. The inside of the container is burnt black.

A fragment of a similar object of the same period has been found in the necropolis of München-Freiham (Germany). The only other comparable objects known so far stem from the bog sites of Thorsberg (Northern Germany) and Vimose (Denmark). The preliminary interpretation is that the artefacts were used as containers for cinder.

Further information can be found in Dürr (2018). The author would be grateful for information about comparative objects.

Robin Dürr

Dürr, Robin (2018): Was man weiß, sieht man erst? Zwei Zunderdosen aus der Provinz Raetia Secunda. in: Wieczorek, Alfried & Wirth, Klaus (eds.): Von Hammaburg nach Herimundesheim. Festschrift für Ursula Koch, Publikationen der Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, 43-50, Mannheim

September 2018

The 13th ICAZ conference took place this month in Ankara and included two sessions related to worked bone. It has become a tradition to chose an artefact from the hosting country as bonetool of the related month.

Therefore tis time we chose two beautiful and unusual bone pins showing an anthropomporphic design. They have been found 1940-1941 in rescue excavations at the dwelling mound of Dündartepe in the Samsun region near the Black Sea in Turkey. Stratigraphic documentation is poor unfortunately, but the occupation of the site spans from the Late Chalcolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. The finds are in the collection of the Samsun Archaeology and Ethnography Museum.

Gamze Durdu & Hans Christian Küchelmann

Durdu, Gamze (2018): A Group of Bone Ornaments from Prehistoric Samsun Region, Black Sea, Turkey, poster presented at the 13th ICAZ conference in Ankara, Ankara

August 2018

This month a snapshot from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. These bone sticks below are so called Napier’s bones. A kind of early pocket calculator developed around 1650 by the mathematician John Napier (1550-1617). With the sticks it is possible to convert complex multiplications into additions and subtractions. They have been manufactured not only from bone but also from ivory, wood or metal and are frequently provided in a small box to be kept in the pocket.
More Information.

Hans Christian Küchelmann

Inventory no. H.NL 43; photo: Hans Christian Küchelmann

July 2018

This bone tool has been found in Xinjiang, China in a context dated between 500-100 BC. The artefact is made from a rib but its exact function is not clear. Sugested functions were a hide processing tool or a tool for pottery decoration.

You Yue

June 2018

The drilled vertebra of a Cat Fish (Silurus glanis) shown above has been found in Hitzacker-Marwedel, a Roman Iron Age settlement in Niedersachsen, Germany, which was inhabited from 100-180 AD. Within the approximately 8.500 animal bones 12 artefacts were found, most of which were simple needles, awls and handles. The drilled vertebra is a unique item of an unknown purpose.

Becker, Cornelia (2009): Über germanische Rinder, nordatlantische Störe und Grubenhäuser – Wirtschaftsweise und Siedlungsstrukturen in Hitzacker-Marwedel, Beiträge zur Archäozoologie und Prähistorischen Anthropologie 7, 81-96

May 2018

Photos: Hans Christian Küchelmann

This artefact is particularly interesting because of its object history. It is a fossil horn of an Aurochs (Bos primigenius), found in the 17th century by A. G. Wildervanck during peat digging  in the bog near Veendam. In 1669-1670 the fossil horn was equipped with silver fittings and formed into a hunting horn by Arent Hamminck. At present it is part of the collection of the Groninger Museum and exhibited in the Veenkoloniaal Museum Veendam, the Netherlands.

Hans Christian Küchelmann

April 2018

The double bead shown below was found oat the medieval to post medieval site of Bective Abbey in Ireland. The visible features confirm that the object is bone, most probably turned from a thick strip of a large mammal longbone. The whole bead shows the axially oriented, regularly spaced lines of dark spots and dashes formed by the vascular system of the bone (Haversian channels). The photomicrograph clearly shows a branching blood vessel in the bone.

This ‚double‘ bead may not be a single complete bead but two unfinished beads. To make these beads you start with a length of compact bone tissue that is drilled down the centre. Several beads are turned along the bone strip in one go but are left attached to each other. When the shaping is complete the bone strip is removed from the lathe and only then is a cut made between the beads to separate them. If you try to part the beads whilst they are turning on the lathe they will fly off in all directions when the chisel cuts through to the drilled hole! If you look at the waist between the beads you will see that one side is vertical and the other sloped and marked with a deep groove. These features ensure that the beads are cut apart accurately. Either these beads were dropped before they could be separated or they were discarded because they were sub-standard. Perhaps some of the visible surface blemishes were apparent when the bone was fresh. Could they be Rosary beads?

Measurements: length 10,1 mm, diameter 5,6 mm.

Fiona Beglane & Sonia O’Connor

Beglane, Fiona (2016): Bone artifacts. in: Stout, G. & Stout, M. (eds.): The Bective Abbey Project: Archaeological Excavations 2009–12, 73-76, Dublin

March 2018

This months bonetools are two quite unique items since they have been manufactured from a rather rare and unusual raw material: rhinoceros ivory.

The left picture shows a spindle whorl made from a lower incisor of an Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) found in a 5th century context in Alexandria, Egypt.

On the right you see a pendant made out of an upper molar of a whooly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). It has been found 1958 by André Leroi-Gourhan during an excavation in the Grotte du Rennes in Arcy-sur-Cure, France, in a Late Upper Paleolithic layer (couche X) assigned to the culture of the Châtelperronian (45.000-40.000 BP). The dark staining is due to fossilization, originally the pendant would have been white. Both objects have been published by Francoise Poplin (2006, 1124-1127, fig. 6-7).

Poplin, Francois & Rahimifar, Mahnaz (2006): L’Ivoire de Rhinoceros et les Ivoire du proche-orient ancien. – Comptes Rendus des Séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres (CRAI) 4-6/2006, 1119-1130

February 2018

The flintlock gun above was inherited by my colleague Stijn from his father. No further details about origin, provenance, object history or dating are known. Flintlock arms were invented in the 16th century, the flint lock type of this gun (snaphaunce) was used since the 17th century. Typological features reveal that the gun is a so-called Bou-Chfer from Morocco. The shape of the butt indicates that it belongs to a type called Afedali, which originates from the region of Taroudant and the valley of Oued Sous. In Northern Africa flintlock guns were in use until the 20th century, often reassembled from parts of older guns. They are still important objects in Moroccan folklore (Elgood 1995, 69-74; Ewersen, pers. com. 5.2.2018).

As many of the North African flintlock guns, this one is equipped with bone inlays in the wooden body (stock and butt), according to the local tradition possibly made of camel bones. There are examples with extremely elaborate decorations proving overwhelming artistic skills and craftsmanship in bone, wood and metal working. This gun however, was rather coarsely manufactured. Metal and wood used are poorly worked and the way the different types of wood and metal are merged with each other give the impression of a shortage of raw materials. The bone inlays consist of circular, rectangular, trapezoid and tear-drop-shaped plaques inserted in the wooden body. They are decorated with ring-and-dot motifs and drilled holes, which were filled with black, red and blue coloured substances. The arrangement of the decoration follows a symmetrical lay-out, but the spacing is done with less care than in other examples. The slots for the plaques are coarsely carved and do not fit to the shape of the inlays in all cases. Interestingly, there are slight differences visible in the bone plaques. Of the four trapezoid plaques arranged around a circular one in the right side of the butt for instance, the three ones facing to the front are neatly fitting into the carved slots while the one facing to the rear does not. It seems that the slots for the former three plaques have been shaped for pre-manufactured plaques and that the plaques have been inserted into the body before the final fine grinding of the butt was done, which then affected bone an wood together. The latter one seems to be a replacement for a lost plaque inserted later into an already existing slot, resulting in a less precise fitting.

The gun was severely damaged in a car crash, which caused the loss of several parts, including some of the bone inlays. Without the intention to produce an authentic restoration, we tried to re-build some of the missing inlays using cattle bone pieces (metapodiae and femur sections). One issue here was to be not too perfect in the shaping of the plaques and the arrangement of the decorations in order to stay in-line with the originals. Finally, the bleached bone plaques were dyed with tea and the ring-and-dot motifs were coloured.

Hans Christian Küchelmann

Photos: Stijn

Elgood, Robert (1995): Firearms of the Islamic World in the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait, London

January 2018

The first bonetools in 2018 are three examples of Iron Age combs from Spain. There are altogether 19 bone and ivory combs as well as one wooden comb known from the Iberian Culture (4th to 2nd centuries BC). All of these combs were found in settlements. They comprise part of the project “Wood, Bone, Ivory, Antler and Shell. Marginal or isolated crafts?” (HAR2013-45770-P).

Top row:
Ivory comb with incised decoration from Kelin, an Iberian Iron Age central place (Caudete de las Fuentes, Valencia, Spain; 3rd century BC). The comb was found in a house excavated in 2002. It is held in the Museu de Prehistòria de València (MPV).
Length: 7,0 cm; width: 4,2 cm.
Face a: two carnivores facing each other; face b: two long-necked birds.
Photos: Museu de Prehistòria de València.

Middle row:
Bone comb with incised decoration from Puntal dels Llops (Olocau, Valencia, Spain; 3rd century BC). The comb comes from ‘Unit 4’ at this site, excavated in 1981. It is also kept in the Museu de Prehistòria de València.
Length (restored): 4,0 cm; width (preserved): 2,5 cm.
Faces a and b: wild boar.
Photos: Museu de Prehistòria de València.

Bottom row:
Ivory comb with incised decoration from La Serreta (Alcoi, Alicante, Spain; 3rd century BC). The comb comes from an excavation unit studied in 1956. It is exhibited in the Museu Arqueológico Alcoi.
Length: 7,6 cm; width: 4,2 cm
Faces a and b: Geometric and plant motives.
Photos: E. Collado.

Consuelo Mata-Parreño
Grup de Recerca en Arqueologia del Mediterrani (GRAM)
Dept. Prehistòria i Arqueologia
Universitat de València

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