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Bone and Antler Working

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Bone & Antler Working
Bone and antler were widely used in the Viking and Saxon period, often for jobs for which we now use plastics. Quite a lot of bone and antler objects have survived, partly because it was widely used, but also due to the fact that it generally survives well in the ground in most conditions. The Ph conditions should be ideally calcareous (chalky) or neutral. However when archaeologists are excavating in sandy acid soils, skeletal material will be very rare or in a very poor condition, or often non-existent. Horn survives very infrequently in the ground, often only being detected as a mineralised layer on metals that have rusted over time.
Most of the bone used came from horses, cattle, sheep and pigs (as you might expect from an agrarian society) although bird bones were used for such things as musical pipes. Antler was sourced from red deer (called Elk in North America) or in more Northerly latitudes from the Elk (or Moose as it is called in North America) or Reindeer (or Caribou as it is known in North America). It was either taken from animals killed whilst hunting or, more usually, collected after the deer had shed their antlers naturally in February and late March. The red deer antlers as an example were used almost completely, only the tines and the brow ridge being discarded occasionally.
Horn, from cows and oxen, sheep and goats, was also widely used, but, being far softer than bone or antler, does not survive quite so well in the ground. Whalebone, walrus ivory and even elephant ivory were also used as and when they became available.
The tools of the bone worker would have been very similar to those of the carpenter although he would also have a fine saw for cutting up the bone and antler. To clean the bone, it could be exposed for woodland insects and maggots, or buried for the worms and such to clean it, or even placed in an ants nest, especially a Wood Ants nest. In a few days they will clean off every bit of tendon and fat from the bone. Bone after all the fat and technically speaking 'gunk' has been removed, is quite a brittle material when the parts get too small. However, with practice, it can be sawn into pieces, or with a sharp axe, carefully trimmed to shape. The shavings of bone from this process are small and have few features to identify them from other rubbish produced by working the bone. After shaping with an axe, files and chisels can be used to finish of the piece, with little need to polish the surface if a really sharp chisel was used. Even the carving can be executed with the chisel. Bone can also be soaked prior to working for an hour or so to soften the surface ready for carving. Sometimes an open-work design was made by drilling right through the piece before widening or fretting out the shape.
Antler is stronger than bone and was used for jobs where the extra strength was needed - typically for combs where the teeth would break if made from a weaker material. Many combs are described as bone combs, where it really meant antler. Some weaving combs were replicated from the Shetlands from bone, and the teeth soon broke. There were probably specialist comb makers who carried out this complicated task. It is likely that some people would have taken their own antler to the comb-maker, thus reducing the cost of their combs which were popular items in Viking times.
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