Mystery Bonetools

The title of this page may sound more mystic than it should. It simply frequently happens that during analysis of bone material one encounters an artefact for which there is no idea of the function or use it might have been applied for. While we will never be able to understand and recognise the ways of thinking of past communities in full detail, the worldwide exchange of ideas towards a certain object may help to find at least possible clues.

If you wish to put an object for discussion online here send an e-mail to Christian Küchelmann.



Request by Corina Caravatti, Switzerland, and Marloes Rijkelijkhuizen, Leiden, Netherlands • 28. 4. 2014

bta 2014 05 valais rib bta 2014 05 tongeren rib
Gamsen-Waldmatte, Valais, Switzerland
Tongeren, Belgium
Iron age finds from Switzerland
The toothed ribs on the left have been found at the site Gamsen-Waldmatte (Valais, Switzerland), an alpine settlement of the Iron Age, situated at the foot of the mountain Glishorn. The settlement is located close to very important transalpine routes (Simplon, Albrun).
Altogether there are seventeen of these toothed ribs among the bone tools of Gamsen-Waldmatte. Only one rib is toothed double-sided. The teeth are always blunt and remarkably rounded, which possibly indicates the use of the ribs in connection to rather soft material. The incisions, which form the teeth sometimes go deep, but also at times stay very superficial, so that the teeth are hardly visible.

Roman period finds from Tongeren, Belgium
Two toothed objects have been found at excavations in Tongeren, Belgium. Both are dated to the third century AD. One is made of the processus spinosus of a large mammal vertebra. The length of the object is circa 15 cm, the greatest width 3,3 cm. At one end blunt teeth were made. The other end seems to have functioned as a handle. A fragment of a second toothed object has been found at the same site. In the Netherlands toothed ribs have been found from the Frisian terp-mounds (Roes 1963), their function is still unknown.

Several flat bone tools with blunt teeth have been found at different sites in Europe. The function of these objects remains unknown, although there are several ideas regarding their purpose: As scraper or burnisher for structuring / decorating soft material, as comb in textile working, as knife for removing the scales of a fish, as tool for the sharpening of knives, as ruler or measuring tool, as musical instrument, as a scraper to deflesh skins, etc. It would be interesting to test these assumptions in archaeological experiments. Unfortunately, no use wear analysis could be done just yet. We would be grateful for comments or ideas about the function or comparative finds.

Roes, Anna (1963): Bone and antler objects from the Frisian terp-mounds, Haarlem


Request by Kevin Booth, English Heritage, United Kingdom • 27. 6. 2013

The two decorative bone plates above have been found at Conisbrough Castle, a 12th centrury fortress in South Yorkshire, England. The thin section flat pieces are shaped with a hook at one end, a narrowing at the centre and have a drilled fastening hole at the opposite end. They are decorated on one side only at their border with a line of fine drilled dots. They are left and right side of a symmetrical pair. There is unfortunately no proper context information for the finds, which means that they could be anything from medieval until as late as 19th century, when the site was an open romantic ruin for leisurely picnics. There are no clues of the function of these pieces yet and curator Kevin Booth would be grateful for any comments.
bta 2014 03 conisbrough1 bta 2014 03 conisbrough2


Request by Nathalie Meyer, Köln, Germany • 12. 4. 2013

This tool of unknown function has been found a decade ago at the site of the Roman naval base at Altenburg (1st century AD) in the Lower Rhine area of Germany (Roman province Germania inferior). Recently a second similar piece has been discovered from the same site.  Both are made out of metatarsi of sheep. Taking the context into account, there is a possibility that the tools are related to ships or navigation.
For any suggestions or information on comparative items please contact Nathalie Meyer.

Mayer, Nathalie (2014): Archäozoologische Untersuchungen an den Tierknochen des römischen Flottenlagers Köln-Alteburg, Phasen 1-5. – Kölner Jahrbuch 47, 41-89
mys altenburg meyer1 mys altenburg meyer2


Request by Sonia O’Connor, Bradford, UK • 30. 10. 2012

Whilst working on my post-doc project in the stores of the Horniman Museum I spotted this novel use of astragali. This double-sided box zither (Horniman Museum, London, accession no. 2010.0.1) was made in 2004 by Sergei Charkov of Khakassia in the Russian Federation. The body of the zither is constructed from larch and fir wood with  12 steel strings on the upper surface and 11 below. The bridges on the upper surface are made from sheep astragali. Each astragalus sits on a leather pad and they seem only to have been modified by drilling a hole to support a strip of longbone in a vertical position. The top of the bone strips have a small notch in which the strings are located.
I do not know if there is a tradition in this region of using astragali for stringed instrument bridges but if organic strings are used, the bone bridges might be the only surviving component and unlikely to be interpreted as part of a musical instrument.
Any one seen anything like this?
bta 2013 07 box-zither1 bta 2013 07 box-zither2



Request by Christian Gates St-Pierre, Canada • 15. 10. 2012


The four objects on the picture come from the Droulers site, a Late Woodland (1000 to 1550 AD) permanent village site of the St.Lawrence Iroquoians located in Southern Quebec (Canada).

The one on the upper left side is a black bear (Ursus americanus) canine that was sawed longitudinally in the middle, exposing a very little portion of the pulp cavity, while part of the rostral face has been grinded and polished to obtain a plane surface.

On the upper right side is a medium-size carnivore canine (probably a fox or dog) that was also sawed longitudinally, but with a oblique orientation so that only the crown is affected, the root remaining intact. There are no indications of use as pendants for both of these canines (no perforations and no grooves on the root).

On the middle of the picture are shown two faces of the medial portion of a fragmentary object, rectangular in cross-section, with all four sides grinded and polished. Four partial or complete „cupules“ are visible on one face, and three on the other. These cupules have different dimensions in terms of diameter and depth; thus, the four cupules that are visible of the surfaces show on the left are deeper than the ones on the other side and they seem to have resulted form a drilling process, while the three others, more shallow, probably result from some scraping technique (repeated extractions of small quantities of bone at each gesture). Although a small part of the object is slightly darker than the rest of the object, there are no clear indications of an exposure to fire, so the cupules do not seem to result from some heating process (as is sometimes observed on stone tools).

Finally, the object at the bottom of the picture has been cut and polished from a thin slice of bone (probably mammal), and it is broken at one extremity (the one on the left side). The shape is asymmetrical and there is a small indentation on one side. It reminds of the shape of an animal, although it is hard to identify which species or larger taxa it might represent.



Request by Sean Rice, Scotland • 30. 9. 2012

The miniature sword or knife shown below has been found at the Links of Noltland, Westray, Orkney, in September 2012 within a Bronze Age structure dated ca. 3500 BP.
Any suggestions, remarks and especially hints towards comparative items are welcome.
mys_noltland_knife1.jpg mys_noltland_knife2.jpg


Request by Aikaterini Glykou, Kiel, Germany • 1. 11. 2011

The objects in question here are three modified vertebrae of Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) found between 1993 and 2006 at three different sites at the Baltic Sea coast (Tårnby Torv, Denmark; Fehmarn and Stralsund, Germany). The dating of the objects is medieval to early modern (12th to 17th century). The vertebrae all belong to adult individuals of approximately 250 cm total length and 200 kg weight. Tunas are not regular residents of the Baltic Sea and appear only occasionally as vagrants, therefore the vertebrae probably have been imported. All show a similar mode of treatment: A central perforation (12 – 20 mm) and the removal of the apophyses as well as traces of use at the whole surface of the corpus, which point to a repeated usage. The function of these artefacts still remains unknown. Suggested hypotheses include the use as part of the rigging of ships or as a bobbin for threads in fishery. Suggestions or comparative objects are welcome.

Related publication:
Glykou, Aikaterini / Heinrich, Dirk / Bødker-Enghoff, Inge (2011): Bearbeitete Wirbel von Thunfischen, Thunnus thynnus (L. 1758) – Frühneuzeitliche Objekte unbekannter Funktion. – Offa 63/64, 209-215

Tuna vertebra from Tårnby Torv. Foto: Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig
Tuna vertebra from Stalsund. Foto: Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig


Request by Michael Olausson, Sweden • 28. 2. 2011

The strange item shown below was found 2010  on a hilltop site called Runsa, north of Stockholm. The site is dated to the 5th and the first half of the 6th century. The find is made of antler and is 9 cm long with three „tooth“ rows. The distances between the different teeth are 3, 2 and 1 mm. Michael would be grateful for a answers, ideas, comments.
olausson_2_2011_fynd_vecka.jpg mys_olausson_runsa_draw.jpg
Description of use wear:
There are clear signs of wearing on the „point“. As you can see from the drawing, all the teeth fom both sides are worn down, except the first in the roow which seems to be intact. All the teeth have ben decoratead with tiny dubble lines. As I see it, the clearly visible signs of wearing are traces of a mechanical movment, probably from left to the right and back again? In this respect, it is like the movement of a key.
Michael Olausson


Request by Nicholas Redman, Teddington, UK • 22. 2. 2011

Illustrated below are two large arches of baleen whale jaw bones for which only very scarce information is available apart from the illustrations itself. So far it was not possible to identify the location of these arches. Additional details would be highly appreciated. Please send comments to Nick Redman.

yorkshire_mystery_arch.jpg The picture on the left shows an newly erected arch on a photograph of ca. 1920. The photo has been donated to the Wood End Museum, Scarborough, North Yorkshire around 1994 together with some papers of the naturalist W. J. Clarke (1871-1945). Therefore the location maybe somewhere in Yorkshire.
This arch is published in
Redman, Nicholas (2004): Whales‘ Bones of the British Isles, 160-161, Teddington
About the specimen on the right nothing else is known so far. mylius_arch.jpg


Request by Kristiina Mannermaa, Helsinki, Finland • 9. 10. 2010

The specimens shown below were found in an aproximately 4500 years old stone age female burial on Gotland. The site is called Ajvide, the cultural phase is Scandinavian pitted ware. The amount of objects is aproximately 25 and they were found on the upper part of the body. The majority was found in clusters (bone and stone artefacts, pendants and tools, fish bones) near the left arm of the human skeleton. The size of the specimens is 3-5 cm (length) and about 1 cm (breadth). They are made of the long bones of large birds (e.g., whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) and crane (Grus grus)). Some of the specimens have holes at both sides of the object (this cannot be seen in the pictures), others don´t have holes at all. Some of the specimens were inside of another specimen. There are about 80 contemporary graves in this cemetery but no other grave has this kind of artefacts. I wonder what these could be and if anyone has seen similar objects somewhere?
b_150_100_16777215_00_images_stories_mystery_ajvide_unknown_object1.jpg b_150_100_16777215_00_images_stories_mystery_ajvide_unknown_object2.jpg b_150_100_16777215_00_images_stories_mystery_ajvide_unknown_object3.jpg
ajvide_unknown_object4.jpg ajvide_unknown_object5.jpg ajvide_unknown_object6.jpg



Request by Steve Ashby, York, UK •  10. 9. 2010

The mysterious object illustrated below has been found in Cottam, East Yorkshire.
If anybody has any idea about its function, examples of comparative finds, etc. please contact Steve Ashby.
Photo: Steve Ashby; object courtesy of Julian D. Richards, University of York (site manager)