Crazy for Bones

“When I found the beautiful white bones in the desert I picked them up and took them home too...I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” 
-Georgia O’Keefe

Collecting and using bones from hunting and gathering is as old as the history of mankind. Even eons into our evolution the last remains of our animal relatives have not lost their fascination, and we use them in technology, art, and as memorabilia.

When I started hunting, I found the old tradition of collecting and displaying trophies stupid and small minded. Very quickly though I found myself using bones from animals for all kinds of purposes way beyond Austrian tradition and custom. It has become my own tradition to use as much as possible from an animal and not letting anything go to waste. And I even found bones on long walks, and sometimes friends bring me their findings. So maybe it is interesting to take a look at these special findings and talk about what to do with them and how:

A: Fresh Bones:

Roe deer skull, cooked but not bleached

If you happen to come across a recently deceased animal – maybe from hunting, a farm, a butcher, or something you find in your garden – you might wonder what to do. I prefer not to just drop the animal into the bio-dumpster, but to use as much as possible of everything I find. It goes, therefore, without saying that my freezer is full of dead birds and mammal heads. In case you wonder how you can get the bones out of the body, I happily give you some advice for their treatment:

1: Think About Your Animal

Before you rush to you workshop, take a moment and consider the material in front of you. A small hare’s head will have to be treated more sensitively than that of an ox. A bird has hollow bones and you might want to handle it with even more care. Treatment times and choice of chemicals might differ from material to material.
Maybe you are cooking a head with antlers or horns. In this case make sure that these weapons of the animal are not in the water or they will lose their color.
Bones from smaller and/or more fragile animals need lower temperatures and shorter periods when cooking.

2: Remove As Much Flesh As Possible

Skinning and cutting an animal is, well, gross. At the same time, it is interesting work from a biological point of view. To me it is mostly humbling to see what we are made of and how highly complex and organized our bodies are.
You can use a deboning knife, a hunting knife, I even sometimes use a pocket knife--which I do not recommend because it is harder to clean afterwards.

3: Put Everything in Water

Take a bucket, a plastic dish, whatever is appropriate in size and put the material in water. You can let it sit there for a while, it doesn’t matter.

4: Cooking

Put your material in water and heat it up. Some elder ladies advised me to add some washing powder to make the bones whiter. You can try that out, as well, but it is optional and potentially deleterious. The most important thing at this stage is to not let the water boil! Let it simmer and check upon your pot once in a while and check the temperature and evaporation. You can add more water, regulate the temperature, all of this is ok. But if the water boils all you will end up with is a disgusting soup with bone splinters in it (speaking of which, you shouldn’t let soups or braises boil either for similar reasons).

5: Taking off the Flesh

After a couple of hours, you will see that the bones are done when the remaining flesh starts to drop from the bones. Take everything out of the pot and check if some components got loose (e.g. sometimes teeth fall out). Now you will have to remove everything from the bones which is not bones, and this might take a while. On the outer surfaces the flesh will fall from the bones with no problem, but cavities (like all those little holes with nerves in them) can take quite a while to clean out.

Some taxidermists use a solution of water and sodium hydroxide to rid the bones of anything containing proteins. I, personally, did not have such good experiences with this lye and do not use it (I included a picture of the damage it can do to bones when not applied correctly). This substance is very aggressive and must be handled with great care in order to avoid chemical burns.

Sodium hydroxide can leave ugly damages in the bone when applied incorrectly (like I did here).

Alternatively, you can put the bones in a bucket of water again and let it sit in it until the remaining material drops off the bone or can be brushed off.

Remove everything you do not want on your bones:

Hairs between the antlers, remaining bone skins - all things that need to go!

6: Bleaching

The substance to use for bleaching bones is hydrogen peroxide, which must always be handled with care. In my experience, products of the “trophy white” type are not as effective. Some collectors prefer to put bones in a peroxide bath, others put the bones in a plastic dish with a little peroxide and apply it sparingly to the bone with a synthetic paint brush (cheaper is better in this case – brushes made of real hair will dissolve). I had good experiences with cotton balls: just stuff them in all those cavities which are hard to clean out, also into eye sockets etc. and let a little hydrogen peroxide be sucked up by the cotton. The cotton balls hold the liquid for several weeks, especially when covered up with cling film, and therefore provide the bones with constant and slow bleaching, while simultaneously reducing the amount of peroxide necessary.

If you live in a hot climate, putting bones out in the sun to bleach is a very cheap and effective method of bleaching. Just make sure they cannot be taken away by stray dogs, crows, or your neighbor’s cat.

Cotton balls inside the roe deer skull.

Cotton balls and hydrogen peroxide.

Neat and complete.

B: Collected Bones:

When you happen to find bones (that is, ones you yourself haven’t prepared, but something you just found outside), it is hardly ever possible to get them nice and clean again. Some bones have decomposed to a state which makes bleaching them almost impossible. You can still gently and carefully clean them with soft brushes and water, but treating them with chemicals would only dissolve them (see images).

Jaw bone - also too decomposed for bleaching.

Sometimes you might come across a younger item, which you can treat almost as aggressively as fresh bones.

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