Horse bones in demand for ice skates in medieval Poland, research shows

The use of horse skeleton parts for production in the early Middle Ages, based on artefact numbers recovered from the site. Image:

The medieval inhabits of historic Wroclaw in Poland fashioned ice skates from the bones of horses, according to researchers, who have described the many uses made of the animals in the fortified settlement.

Wroclaw was one of the most important settlements in the Western Slavic region from the mid-10th century to the 12th/13th century.

At its centre was a multi-part fortified settlement located on Ostrów Tumski Island.

Some of the finds from the old island stronghold have been spectacular, from architectural monuments to elite products from various spheres of human endeavour.

However, there have also been many seemingly less interesting artefacts, among them a series of more than 100,000 animal remains.

Krzysztof Jaworski and his colleagues, writing in the open-access journal Animals, studied all traces of horse-based raw materials from the site. These included processed bones, hides and hair, as well as debris that may be associated with consumption.

The researchers said the horse was one of the most important species in everyday life in the settlement. The animals were primarily associated with horseback riding, but they were also used as workhorses.

However, their remains were put to a multitude of uses.

So far, more than 100 items made from horse bones have been identified, representing about 12% of all manufactured bone and horn products at the site, most of them found in the older strata. The least number were found in the layers covering the first half of the 13th century.

Horse-bone products were made almost exclusively from the supporting bones of the skeletons.

The most frequently processed bones were the metacarpal (40 products), metatarsal bones (19 products), and radial bones (29 items).

It appeared that these bones were perfectly suited for the production of bone ice skates and skids, and had clearly been carefully collected by residents for making these items.

Indeed, a high percentage of these particular horse bones recovered from the site had been processed for human use, indicating they were much in demand.

A selection of the horse bone artefacts excavated on the site. Skates (a–e), knife handle (f), bone spikes (g–j), comb (k). Raw material: horse metacarpal bone—(a–c,j); horse metatarsal bone—(d); horse radius—(e); horse rib—(f); horse splint bone (II or IV metapodium)—(g–i); capsule of hoof—(k). Image: Teresa Demidziuk,

A lower jawbone was also used for making a small sledge.

Processed horse jaws could also be used as musical instruments, such as idiophones, the authors noted. Horse teeth could also be used as pawns in board games. Due to their irregular cuboid shape and cross-sectional structure, the long-crowned cheek teeth of a horse seem to be an excellent material for this purpose.

Amulets were also made of horse bone, although this was not common.

At Ostrów Tumski, the presence of a comb made from the capsule of a horse’s hoof was also confirmed, discovered in a layer from the second half of the 11th century.

In another case, a horse rib was used for a carefully crafted knife holder.

Spikes were also created from horse skeletal remains. They were universal items that could be used for piercing, knitting, engraving, and many other things. Eight were identified in Ostrów Tumski.

Compared to bone, horse hide was of marginal importance. Among the 2626 hide fragments found in the Wroclaw stronghold, only 26 were identified as horse leather, indicating less than 1% of recovered hide from the site was put to use.

Horse hooves, with their high collagen content, were excellent for making adhesives. “Although such a product is very hard to find in the archaeological material, the finds from Ostrów Tumski seem to confirm this,” they said.

Near-complete horse remains found in one of the wells lacked not only the metacarpal and metatarsal bones, but also most of the hooves. They believe they were most likely removed for glue production.

“Horsehair also had its application,” the authors wrote. “To this day, it is used to produce brushes.”

Horsehair was used in tanning (it was found in pits used for tanning at the site) and for filling pillows, mattresses, etc.

Instrument strings and cords were also made of horsehair, the latter being excavated at Ostrów Tumski.

A decorative horsehair necklace was also found.

Turning to the use of horse meat, the researchers pointed to competing interests. Horses were considered to have sacred qualities but, on the other hand, malnutrition was common at that time.

“The prevailing opinion is that horses were not bred for meat, but for riding and transportation, which is confirmed by the advanced age of the horses from Ostrów Tumski and other sites.

“It is also indirectly indicated by the frequency and condition of the bones of other mammals. Domestic animals predominated in the stronghold of Wroclaw (94.5%), among which the most common are the bones of pigs (44%), cattle (32%), and to a lesser extent small ruminants (sheep and goats, 12.8% on average).”

Their number significantly exceeds the proportion of horse bone remains, which were around 3%.

The bones of all these species (except for horses) showed significant disintegration and numerous signs of cuts and splitting in order to butcher the carcass or obtain marrow.

The good condition of the horse remains from Ostrów Tumski indicates no interest in the animal’s meat.

There was, however, limited evidence of butchering, which may well have been an attempt to supplement the diet with the available type of meat (killing a wounded or lame horse).

“One should bear in mind extreme circumstances such as sieges, when each source of protein becomes invaluable.”

In conclusion, the researcher said the analysis work from the Wroclaw stronghold showed a whole spectrum of various applications for horse remains.

“A medieval man was practical by nature, and living conditions did not allow for wasting valuable raw materials. This is fully reflected in the studied objects.

“Horses, unlike other domestic animals, usually lived to old age. However, after their death, there was no hesitation in using their remains.

“Although the meat of old animals was no longer fit for consumption and the usefulness of their hide was limited, the bones of limbs and probably horsehair were used, and their skulls were buried under the houses as offerings.

“It was a symbolic connection both in the sacred and profane spheres of two culturally and emotionally close species: a human and a horse.”

The study team comprised Jaworski and Aleksandra Pankiewicz, with the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Wroclaw; and Aleksander Chrószcz and Dominik Poradowski, with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences.

Jaworski, K.; Pankiewicz, A.; Chrószcz, A.; Poradowski, D. Different Approach to Horses—The Use of Equid Remains in the Early Middle Ages on the Example of Ostrów Tumski in Wroclaw. Animals 2020, 10, 2294.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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