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by Lord Robert of Ferness

If not, you can learn about them here and consider making your own for use with whatever footwear you care to wear. They do not take long to make and it is or soon will be deer-hunting season, which may allow you to obtain fresh bones.

Bone ice skates have a long, widespread history, going back to the Bronze Age and lasting up until the early 1900s in places where ice forms thick enough to support the weight of skaters. At least four period sources (two with illustrations) have left us descriptions of their use (and resulting consequences related to sports).

The rest are outrun by those competitors in the race who attach to the soles of their feet the shin-bones of deer thoroughly smoothed and greased with pork fat, since, when the cold drops of water rise as it were through the pores of the ice during fierce cold, the bones smeared in this way cannot be hampered or kept in check, as iron can however much it is polished or greased.- Olaus Magnus, 1555, Description of the Northern Peoples, Book I, Chapter 25. (Translated from Latin by P. Fisher and H. Higgens.)

Others there are, more skilled to sport upon the ice, who fit to their feet the shin-bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with iron-shod poles in their hands they strike ever and anon against the ice and are borne along swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from mangonel.

But sometimes two by agreement run one against the other from a great distance, and, raising their poles, strike one another. One or both fall, not without bodily harm, since on falling they are borne a long way in opposite directions by the force of their own motion; and wherever the ice touches the head, it scrapes and skins it entirely.

Often he that falls breaks arm or shin, if he fall upon it. But youth is an age greedy of renown, yearning for victory, and exercises itself in mimic battles that it may bear itself more boldly in true combats. – William FitzStephen, ca. 1173, A Description of the Most Noble City of London. (Translated from Latin by L. Gourde.)

Illustrations from Olaus MagnusCow and horse metatarsal (shin) bones make up the vast majority of skates found archaeologically. The remaining 10% or so come from deer, sheep, or goats. The latter likely served youth or children rather than adults, given their smaller size.

Fresh bones retaining some of their original fatty material seem to work better than dried-out ones, however it may be possible to recondition those or apply fat or grease to them in order to reduce their friction with the ice.

When using bone skates, one does not push off to the side as with a modern metal blade. Instead, one stands on the bones and pushes backward with a metal-tipped pole between one’s legs. (Using a metal-tipped pole in each hand may be an alternate way to propel oneself.)

Note that it is not necessary to strap the skates to one’s footwear, although that can be done. Many surviving skates have no attachment holes and others have only a front one. Some sport a front hole as well as a small wood or metal peg projecting from the rear end of the bone.

Bone skates recovered archaeologically often show evidence of shaping the front by angling upward and/or inward, presumably to better push aside snow on the ice. Some bottoms show evidence of flattening, and some top have been modified by making them rougher in order to better grip the smooth leather of a shoe or boot sole. People used axes or grindstones to gain the desired shape. (Based on trying both, I recommend a hatchet. You do not want to smell freshly ground bone. Ever.)

The author wearing turnshoes on bone ice skates

My recent project documentation for a pair of white-tailed deer bone ice skates and shoes to go with them can be viewed for more details, photos, and an extensive bibliography.

See a video of me trying them on ice, demonstrating the use of a pole for propulsion.

Author's deviceSelected Sources:

Edberg, R. and J. Karlsson. 2016. “Bone skates and young people in Birka and Sigtuna” in Fornvännen 111:1, 7-16.

FitzStephen, W. ca. 1173. A Description of the Most Noble City of London in An Annotated Translation of the Life of St. Thomas Becket by William Fitzstephen. Trans. L. Gourde, 1943, Master’s Thesis. Paper 622. 15-16.

Küchelmann, H. C., and P. Zidarov. 2005. “Let’s Skate Together! Skating on Bones in the Past and Today” in 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 August 2003, H. Luik et al. eds., Tallinn: Ajaloo Instituut, 425-45.

Küchelmann, H. C., and P. Zidarov. [Accessed 2018-09-19]. “Bone Skates Database” at http://www.knochenarbeit.de/en/index.php?page=bone_skates.

MacGregor, A. 1976. “Bone Skates: A Review of the Evidence” in Archaeological Journal 133, 57-74.

MacGregor, A. 1980. Skeletal materials: their structure, technology and utilisation c. A.D. 400-1200. Durham theses, Durham University. 284-299.

Magnus, O. 1539. Carta Marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum. [Map with legend depicting ice skaters in Section F. Several versions linked via Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carta_marina.]

Magnus, O. 1555. Description of the Northern Peoples. [Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, trans. P. Fisher and H. Higgens, ed. P. Foote, The Hakluyt Society, London, 1996. Second Series, Nos. 182, 187, 188.] 182: 57-59, 86; 187: 560; 188: 1048.