Recently, I made the serendipitous acquaintance of a biological anthropologist who feeds deer carcasses to her collection of dermestid beetles, and she offered me the leftover bones which the hungry beetles had efficiently stripped of flesh. This might seem like a strange offer, but I was delighted.
The favored tool of the book & paper conservator is the bone folder. A few years ago, Jim Croft, medieval bookbinder and traditional toolmaker extraordinaire, traveled to Austin, TX, to teach a bone tool making workshop for the conservator students at the now-defunct Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record. Jim arrived with boxes of clean, dried-out elk and deer bones that he had scavenged off the land in his home state of Idaho. He explained that weight-bearing leg bones would be the densest, and therefore the most durable for tool making, and then proceeded to teach us how to fashion this raw material into sleek, polished tools using axes, rasps, files, sandpaper, and steel wool. I treasure the tools I made that weekend, and use them daily – a large bone for smoothing down bookcloth and pastedowns, a bone lifter, a miniature twist of bone for turning-in head and tail caps, a tiny bone chisel, and a slender tool with a curved point perfect for getting into box corners. There’s something uniquely satisfying about working with a tool you made to fit your own hand.
Last year, while I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the enthusiastic staff wanted to have their own tool making workshop, and the tentative idea was realized quite suddenly when a graduate assistant showed up at the lab with several deer legs wrapped in a burlap sack (her family are hunters). I had an idea what to do with bones, but was at a loss how to manage these fresh deer legs still covered in fur and flesh. Luckily, one of our volunteer technicians offered his assistance (and home workshop) for the task. Charlie Wisseman, retired pathologist, current mixed media artist, and intrepid Renaissance Man, took the leg bones home to his workshop, where he cut off the hooves, skinned the legs, boiled them for several hours in an old pot, and left them to cool overnight. The next day, Charlie and I emptied the congealed fat and cooled liquid from the pot, and then drew out the sopping bones, still attached to one another by thick tendon. Chunks of gelatinous matter clung to the ends of each bone segment, while the bones themselves were sheathed in fatty film and bits of meat. We set about cleaning the meat, fat, and tendons from the bones using sharp kitchen knives. As we worked, Charlie told me autopsy stories from his days as the pathologist at a local hospital.
After about an hour of scraping, we put on safety glasses, ear plugs, and surgical masks, and fired up the band saw. The blade bit into the bone with a squeal, sending out a stream of fine, acrid dust. We used the band saw to cut off the knobby ends and split each bone into two halves. Fatty liquid poured from the core of the cut bones, exposing dark gray marrow with the consistency of greasy, soft mud. We scooped out the marrow, which splattered and clung to everything, and then scrubbed the bones with steel brushes. After dunking the bones into a bucket of warm water and sloshing them about, we dried them well with paper towels and buried them in Charlie’s compost heap for the remainder of the winter to dispatch any residual soft matter. Several months later, on the sunny spring day of the workshop, a dozen Conservation Lab staff members sat on benches and lawn chairs in Charlie’s driveway, where we hatcheted, rasped, filed, and sanded our way from naked deer bone to finished conservation tool.
All this brings me back around to the biological anthropologist at ISU who was so pleased to find a meaningful use for her leftover deer bones, and my unexpected good fortune in finding a ready supply of flesh-free bones. When the 2010 Lennox Foundation Interns join the Preservation Department this summer, the Conservation staff will spend a day sitting outside in the Iowa sunshine, shaping bones tools to fit our own hands.