Occasionally my profession and my favorite hobby meet, and a little while ago they collided when Beverly A. Thurber’s book Skates Made of Bone: A History (McFarland, 2020) was published.
FYI, this is a very long post outlining some of Thurber’s most important findings and my thoughts on them. I have divided it into six parts with links to different sections below. There is also a list of books and articles mentioned in the text at the end.
1 How to study the early history of skating?
About 15 years ago (late 2007), the origins and birthplace of skating on ice were declared to be Finland in the Late Stone Age or Early Bronze Age, some 4000–5000 years ago. Two Italian physiologists working in the UK, Federico Formenti and Alberto E. Minetti published results of their studies on bone skates and skating. It was a catchy theme and got a lot of media attention (see, for example, an article in Live Science with an interview). Formenti and Minetti’s work is cited in the Wikipedia article on Ice skating and its history. Finland is mentioned as the possible birthplace in many a popular book, article, and webpage published since 2007.
Curiously enough, archaeologists did not really react to the news, not even in Finland. A representative of the National Board of Antiquities was mildly doubtful as no prehistoric bone skates have been found in Finland (comments in Finnish in Turun Sanomat). Janne Ikäheimo was not as polite in his analysis of the article (available on his Academia page) but as it was published in Finnish, it did not get the attention it deserved.
At the time, I also had my doubts about Formenti and Minetti’s results and was very excited to get to read a specialized study on history of skating!
The earliest history of skating has never been discussed properly in a book and it is easy to understand why. The evidence for the study is strictly archaeological, skates made of bone, found mainly in Europe and western parts of Asia starting from the Bronze Age about 4000 years ago. Bone skates were used until late 20th century in many places. Studying them means tackling a huge variety of cultures and environments from early agricultural and pastoral communities of the Eurasian steppe to the Medieval and modern cities of western Europe.
Getting to know the archaeological material requires finding and reading museum catalogues, reports of archaeological excavations, and publications in most languages spoken in Europe and Asia. Recently, this part has been made slightly easier with an online database collected and maintained by a German archaeozoologist Hans Christian Küchelmann.
Thurber’s book makes good use of this database, and her work is based on materials and methods from many different fields of research. She is not an archaeologist, but a specialist in Old Norse language and skating history. In the book, Thurber tackles archaeological finds, experimental work of making and using bone skates, literary evidence and ethnographic data from various languages and cultures as well as climate information and genetics. Her achievement in dealing with all the other disciplines deserves serious respect!
The book is a compact presentation of the 4000 or so years of skating history – only 134 pages. Many of the topics explored have been studied previously by others and Thurber reports their results but is perhaps not able to add much new. Her discussion of the available written sources is more profound than what has been done previously. In addition, Thurber is probably the first to properly explore the history of metal blades. The most important aspect of the book is that it outlines the whole history of skating on ice before the modern era for the very first time.
2 Bones on ice: How do they work?
Bone skates are in general simple objects that are usually made of cattle or horse leg bones. One end is usually carved to rise upwards and there might be holes for binding them to the feet of the skater. The bones used are naturally flat and need little modification to create a smooth surface at the bottom of the skate. Until quite recently, it was speculated how the skates were used and even if they worked at all. Ethnographic examples and historical sources suggested that they were used to skate on ice, but certainty was reached by experimenting on manufacture and use of bone skates. It was discovered that skating on bones was indeed possible (for example, Küchelmann and Zidarov in 2005).
Skating on bones is very different from skating on the modern thin and sharp metal blades. Firstly, there is no blade, the flat and wide bone surface is against ice. Secondly, the bones were not always attached to the feet of the skater – only some of the skates feature drilled holes for binding. Thirdly, the bone surface cannot be used to push speed against ice like the metal blade, and even if the bones are attached to the feet, there is no traction. Instead, movement and speed are created by pushing a sharp pole against ice. The pole is held with both hands usually between the feet of the skater.
The basic technique can also be seen in this video. In this case, the skates are made of moose bones and the skater is a member of a group of Finnish Stone Age enactors, Kuttelo.
Slightly different use of bone skates can be seen in another video featuring Latvian Medieval enactors. They use two poles quite like cross country skiers and use bone skates almost as if they were modern hockey skates. It is not known that two poles would have been used and it is also somewhat uncertain whether ancient skaters without experience on metal blades would have attempted movement like this.
Thurber also made and tried skating on bones. Unlike most researchers doing experiments, she is an experienced skater, and excelled in her skating experiments over the others (though evidence would have been interesting to see!). She demonstrated that a skilled skater could change direction and even spin with bone skates instead of just moving forward. Stopping is the hard part: neither the bones nor the pole offers much help in the process. Just letting the speed stop naturally seems to be the most effective way.
Thurber also noted that skating on natural ice was easier than on the perfect ice of a rink. The uneven natural surface probably creates a bit more traction for better control while still allowing the bone to glide forwards. According to Thurber, the ice must be clean of snow to work as even a small amount of snow could stop the glide.
3 Skating on ice: A mode of transportation or plain fun?
Based on the experiments, skating on bones was possible but clearly not the easiest way to move around. In addition, the need for snowless ice makes one wonder what purpose did skating on bones really serve. Some written sources suggest that long distances could have been traveled on bone skates. Formenti and Minetti (as mentioned in part 1) based their work on an assumption that bone skates were developed and used mainly for winter transportation.
Another view has been presented by Swedish archaeologists Rune Edberg and Johnny Karlsson (2015 & 2016) who studied hundreds of bone skates from the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval urban sites Birka and Sigtuna. Based on the small sizes of the skates and information provided by ethnographic sources, they determined that skating at those sites would have been a pastime and hobby of young people.
Business or pleasure? That is a tugh question to answer!
Many different approaches can be adopted to study the function and significance of the skates. Figuring out what, where, when, who, and why is important. The “what” part can be a little difficult as bone skates are simple objects and identifying them is not always easy. Similar objects were used as scrapers or beamers in preparation of leather or textiles. Sledge runners could also be made of bone, and they are like bone skates. However, runners usually feature holes for attaching them to wood that would have not worked if they were used as skates. The opinion among those who have studied the bone artifacts is that at least in Europe, they were predominantly used for skating.
The “where” and “when” parts are slightly easier to discover. Bone skates have been found mostly in Central and Northern Europe, from the Carpathian Basin to the British Isles and up north to Fennoscandia. Bone objects found from Albertfalva in modern Hungary and dated to ca. 2500 BCE have been regarded as the earliest finds, but thet might actually be scrapers. Artifacts regarded as skates with certainty can be dated to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE. These have been found in the western part of the Eurasian Steppe, in Hungary, Ukraine, and the Carpathian Basin in general. A Late Bronze Age site (ca. 1300–700 BCE) near Berlin in Germany is probably the earliest place where bones skates were used in northern parts of Central Europe (Morgenstern 2008).
Bronze Age finds are quite rare and most of the finds are later, Iron Age and Medieval. The invention seems to spread from east to west and north. Finland is in fact one of the last places where bone skates were introduced in the Medieval period. Most of the finds in Northern Europe are late, starting from the 1st millennium CE. In some of their publications on skates, Formenti and Minetti suggest that they were aware of the lack of early finds in Northern Europe, but the late dates did not prevent them from placing the birthplace of skating in Finland.
Metal blades were developed in the Medieval period, starting from the 13th century. They replaced bone skates fully only late in the 20th century as ethnographic sources show that bone skates were used in the countryside still after the 1950s.
The invention of bone skates can be firmly placed in Late Bronze Age Central Europe, but who were the people who started to use them and what role did skating on bones have in their lives?
Thurber approaches the question of significance of skating first by analyzing the bone skates as artifacts. She uses a framework of complexity developed by a Hungarian archaeozoologist Alice M. Choyke (1997). This consists of exploring four aspects of the artifacts:
- Which animals and which anatomical parts and bones were used?
- How much the bone needed to be modified?
- Are there signs of wear?
- Was the artifact repaired or re-modeled?
If the object gets positive associations for each category, then their making and use were important for the societies that used them.
As mentioned above, most of the known bone skates have been made of horse and cattle leg bones. These are not used for food, but could be used for skating because of their density and hardness. Horse and cattle bones are also usually long enough to roughly match the foot size of an adult. Clean bones could be used almost without modification and the most complicated part in making them was drilling holes for binding if they were wanted.
Many skates feature wear marks at the bottom resulting from the glide on uneven ice (check out the Lativan Medieval enactors video above where you can see how the bones get worn). Wear marks have been studied previously (Morgenstern 2008), but apparently the wear from skating and use as scrapers/beamers is similar and the difference between the two artifacts cannot be established. The skates have not usually been repaired – they were apparently easy enough to replace with new ones.
Bone skates emerge as a simple group of artifacts made of materials which would have been scrapped otherwise. Their making did not require much effort or skill and they were not repaired or remodeled as far as is known. Not overly complex and probably not an important tool.
In the end, Thurber agrees with the conclusions of the Swedish archaeologists: skating was more likely to be a pastime than a serious method of transportation even in the earliest times.
It could be added to Thurber’s observations that bone skates remained the same from the beginning until the 20th century when metal blades replaced them. There are no notable regional variations or types that could have been used for example on different kinds of ice surfaces. Metal blades have been developed for speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey, and tour skating in a very short time.
A comparison could also have been made to skis as there are different types of skis for different types of snow conditions, and topography even in the earliest times. Unfortunately for non-Finnish speakers, the most comprehensive analysis and catalogue of ancient ski finds exists only in Finnish (Korteniemi 2019).
Some finds from a Norwegian project, Secrets of the ice collecting the archaeological materials from melting glaciers can demonstrate the different skis.
4 Waterways, ice, and snow: Climate, topography, and spread of skating?
The experimental work (mentioned in Part 2) discovered that the condition of the ice, clean or snowy, was significant for skating on bones. Snow on ice effectively prevented movement. Thurber discusses the effects of climate for the invention and spread of skating, but the usefulness of bone skates in different climates and environments could have been explored further.
Studying past climates is difficult and although general trends can be reconstructed with relative certainty, regional and local variations could have been considerable and not really possible to study. Skating requires winters cold enough for bodies of water to freeze, but if there is a lot of snow, then bone skates are mostly useless – unless the ice surfaces were cleaned.
The climate in the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE in the Eurasian steppe featured cold and dry winters according to Thurber. This could mean winters with little snow which could have been favorable to skating as in the image with a frozen pond without any snow on the surface.
Further north, winter precipitation is more likely to come as snow which also stays on the ground (and on ice) most of the winter. Considering this, it is perhaps not surprising that Northern Europe and Russian archaeological finds do not include early bone skates, but there are skis from the Stone Age onwards (Korteniemi 2019).
Using climate data and snow conditions to explore the significance of skating is tricky and results remain uncertain. Analysis of topography and particularly waterways could have been done much more easily and reliably, but this path has so far been ignored by Thurber and other researchers before her. Are there for example potential water routes that could be used if they froze over?
Formenti and Minetti assumed in their work that water should cover a lot of the ground area for skating to become an important mode of transportation. They examined maps of European countries and concluded that only in Northern Europe, particularly in Finland, there are enough lakes for skating to be truly useful (but then ignored the snow aspect completely).
The areas where the earliest skates have been found do not have many lakes, but there are rivers, estuaries, small ponds, marches, etc. Analyses of the surroundings of the sites where the early skates have been found could reveal if ice for skating was right next to where they spend the winter or was it necessary to go further. Could possible frozen routes have served these communities in winter fishing and/or hunting?
5 Work and leisure in the early agricultural communities?
The invention of skating did not depend solely on suitable climate or presence of frozen water – the character of the communities of humans that invented them is also important. Thurber does not explore this side of bone skates and their use very much.
The bone materials used are an interesting starting point. Even in the earliest times, skates were made of bones of domesticated animals, horse and cattle. Bones of other large mammals, for example moose or deer, account only for a couple of percent of all the bones skates in 4000 years. They could have been used but were not. It seems that the invention of skating had a connection to early agriculture and animal husbandry. Hunter-gatherers did not start to skate despite suitable materials and environments – why not?
The early communities using bone skates were depended on agriculture it seems, but it might be interesting to examine with more detail what kind of agriculture and animal husbandry were dominant. In addition, the character of the settlement sites could be of interest – were they completely sedentary or did they move around with herds? Were winter settlements always in the same places so that familiar frozen waters could be returned to?
Getting enough food in the winter was probably tough in the Eurasian steppe and it is interesting that a winter pastime using precious energy was invented and practiced. Skating as a wintry and outdoorsy pastime of early agricultural communities is worth deeper exploration!
The spread of bone skates in the Iron Age does not get a lot of attention from Thurber. It is difficult to understand what kind of environments were used and what kind of cultures were attracted by skating in the Early Iron Age. Agriculture and animal husbandry had become the basis of economy in every part of Europe – did the spread of horse and cattle make skating spread across Europe?
First bone skates in Fennoscandia are found from Middle Iron Age Gotland, but most of the finds are later and come from early urban centers, such as Birka and Sigtuna mentioned above. Did birth of the urban centers have something to do with the spread of skating? Was Medieval skating the pastime of urban areas or did people skate also in the rural areas?
The snow cover was probably a problem in the North at this time as it was earlier, but the larger population of a town could have led to clearing of ice from snow. Skating could have been possible more regularly and for longer times every year than by just waiting for snowless winters. The invention and spread of metal blades seemingly change the urban–rural division as bone skates tended to be used in rural areas late into the 20th century whereas metal blades were used in urban areas.
Edberg and Karlsson suggested that skating was a pastime for young people based on the sizes of the bones – they would have been uncomfortable for adult size feet. However, the scanty written sources close to the time when Birka and Sigtuna were flourishing seem to refer to adult men as skaters. In addition, the modern experimenters have been mostly adult men who do not seem to have been too bothered by the skates slightly shorter than their feet. Surely also adults could have had fun in the past?
Thurber’s longest discussion concerning cultural aspects of skating concerns Scandinavian settlement on the British Isles in the Viking Age and Medieval periods. A lot of bone skates have been found from York – another early urban center. Bone skates have also been found outside the areas traditionally regarded as those settled by Scandinavians. Thurber suggests that the skates could indicate that their presence was much wider than what is known. Thurber does not examine other finds from these sites, but merely urges others to do it.
Connecting material culture and ethnic populations is quite difficult and risky even with artifacts much more easily associated with ethnic origin, for example jewelry. Local population could have learned skating from the Vikings and done it without any Vikings settled in their area. It could also be pointed out that the settlers to England before the Vikings came from areas where bone skates were known long before Scandinavia.
The cold winters of the Little Ice Age made possible regular frost fairs on the frozen River Thames in the 17th century. But similar activities have been suggested for much earlier periods during winters when the river froze over (Lockwood et al. 2017). Could these early gatherings have also included skating?
6 Similarities of skiing and skating: Confusion or not?
Skiing and skating as wintry activities are often discussed together in Thurber’s book. She maintains that short skis could be mistaken for bone skates and that the movement of skiing and skating was so similar that they could easily be confused. This is based on a long discussion on late written sources in Old Norse (Thurber’s specialty). Thurber suggests that the Old Norse verb skriða (‘to glide’) could refer to both activities.
She also uses illustrations of Olaus Magnus from 1555 to support her hypothesis (see above in Part 2). In addition, rock art drawings of skiers have sometimes very short pieces of something under their feet which Thurber thinks could be skates instead of skis. However, even a superficial exploration on ancient skis and technique of skiing shows that Thurber’s perceptions are somewhat confused and her knowledge of skiing weak.
Firstly, the similarity of skis and bone skates as artifacts. Bone skates are usually barely the length of a foot of an adult person. Skis, on the other hand, are always much longer. Their purpose is to carry the skier over even very thick layers of soft snow, and this means that they had to be usually at least one meter long. The confusion between large snowshoes and skis in terminology is understandable as the short ones are used a bit like snowshoes, more in walking motion, but they could also glide like proper long skis (in modern Finnish ‘liukulumikengät’ – these seem to be called Altai skis in English).
The short skis were easier to use in forests and in varying terrain than the perhaps more common long skis. The catalogue of ancient skis in Jaakko Korteniemi’s MA thesis (2019) lists fragments and the shortest one with measurements was 45 cm long, much longer than any bone skate. It seems very unlikely that skis and skates could have been confused even in ancient times.
Secondly, the similarity of movement. Skating on bone skates is very different from movement on modern skates, but in skiing the basic principles and techniques are still the same as in the Stone Age. The skis are attached to the feet and the heel can move up and down. The bottom of the ski was usually covered with fur to create traction. These two put together means that the movement on skis is based on moving the feet, pushing against snow, gliding over snow, or moving almost like walking.
Skiers use one or two poles, but they are not necessary to create movement. Feet power the movement and pole/s is/are used to add speed, to gain better balance, and to steer the skier. The bottom of the skis could be grooved to make changing direction easier and to give the skier more control – this is also one way to make the difference between a fragment of a ski and a sledge runner as the latter never has grooves. The differences between movement on skis and bone skates are huge and it is hard to understand how they could have been regarded as the same.
Jaakko Korteniemi (2019) made and experimented on skiing on a pair of asymmetrical skis for his MA thesis. A pair of asymmetrical skis means that one ski is very long and the other quite short. The short ski is used to push speed and the long one for gliding over snow. The bottom of the skis is covered with fur. Korteniemi included a video of his experiments in hiw work which illustrates the freedom and possibilities skiing offers. The speeds are considerable, the skis work in all but clear ice conditions. The skier could use his hands to anything, like throwing a spear, whilst still moving along. A skater on bones could not do much else except push more speed.
Members of the Norwegian glacier project, Secrets of the Ice, travelled to the Altai Mountain region to observe skiing in that area. The terrain is tough, and the equipment used by the hunters resemble the short and quite wide skis (or snowshoes?) found from archaeological contexts (hence the Altai ski term for this kind of modern skis). They use mostly just one pole and can use their hands for hunting. (A longer version of the video with more examples of Altai skiers on YT here.)
Keeping the freedom of hands in mind, it is easy to see who is skiing and who is skating in the Carta Marina from Olaus Magnus from 1555. All the people depicted in the inland areas are skiing as their hands are free for using spears and bows for hunting and warfare.
It is also interesting to note that the skaters are dressed in the same way here as in the other images in Part 2: simple costume with a hood or a simple hat over the head. The skiers could seemingly choose their clothing more freely than the skaters.
Thurber also compares the origins of skiing and skating. Skiing has been considered a Russian/Northern European invention as the oldest skis are from Northwest Russia and Fennoscandia, the earliest from around 6000 BCE. However, a cave painting depicting skiers was found from the Altai Mountains recently and the birth place of skiing has been debated since. The painting was dated provisionally to the Paleolithic period, even as early as 10 000–14 000 BCE. However, rock art is quite difficult to date, and a more recent analysis suggests a much later date, maybe around 5000 BCE (Tacon et al. 2016, Novozhenov & Jacobson-Tepfer 2020, 146–147 concur with the later date and present also parallels).
The Altai Mountains are at the eastern end of the Eurasian steppe and a connection with the birthplace of skating could be imagined. However, there are no archaeological skis or skates (as far as I know) from the Altai Mountains or the vast area before the Carpathian basin is reached. And as it has become very clear, bone skates were used in the skiing areas only much later. The two inventions are united by the fact that they are winter activities, but otherwise they seem to have little in common.
Thurber’s book definitively clears some misconceptions such as the birthplace of skating – not Finland but go to our linguistic cousins in Hungary to find the first skaters. The timeline becomes clear, and the invention and development of metal blades gets much needed attention. I wish that her results would have received as much public attention as the very faulty results produced by Formenti & Minetti back in the day. All those hundreds of websites on skating history still claiming that skating began in Scandinavia around 1000 BCE would need to check the most current sources and update their information!
It is wonderful that the written history of skating goes now all the way to its earliest times although Thurber’s book leaves me with more questions than answers. There is a lot to be discovered still, in my opinion, and I hope that the book inspires other researchers to dig deep into the details of skating on bones.
Beverly Thurber also writes a blog which deals with figure skating history: Pagophilia.
There is also a Finnish version of this (with slightly different content) in the fantastic Kalmistopiiri online publication on all things archaeological.
Choyke, A. M. 1997. The Bone Tool Manufacturing Continuum. Anthropozoologica 25–26, 65–72. Available online.
Choyke, A. M. & Bartosiewicz, L. 2005. Skating with Horses: continuity and parallelism in prehistoric Hungary. Revue de Paléobiologie 10, 317–326. Available online.
Edberg, R. & Karlsson, J. 2015. Isläggar från Birka och Sigtuna. En undersökning av ett vikingatida och medeltida fyndmaterial. Stockholm Archaeological Reports 43. Available online.
Edberg, R. & Karlsson, J. 2016. Bone skates and young people in Birka and Sigtuna. Fornvännen 111, 7–16. Available online.
Formenti, F. & Minetti, A. E. 2008: The first humans on ice: an energy-saving strategy. Biological Journal of Linnean Society 93:1, 1–7. Available online.
Korteniemi, J. 2019. Syksyn lylyä laati, talven kalhua kaverti. Epäparisten suksien ja niiden käytön rekonstruktio suksi-innovaation ja -artefaktin kulttuurihistoriallisessa kontekstissa. Unpublished MA thesis, Käsityökasvatus, Opettajankoulutuslaitos, Turun yliopisto. Available online.
Küchelmann, H. C. & Zidarov, P. 2005: Let’s skate together! Skating on bones in the past and today, teoksessa H. Luik, A. M. Choyke, C. E. Batey & V. Lõugas (Eds.), 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 of August 2003, 1–21. Available online.
Lockwood, M., Owens, M., Hawkins, E., Jones, G. S. & Usoskin, I. 2017: Frost fairs, sunspots and the Little Ice Age. Astronomy & Geophysics 58:2, 17–23. Available online.
Morgenstern, P. 2008. Gebrauchsspurenkundliche Untersuchungen an Schlittknochen aus der jungbronzezeitlichen Siedlung von Berlin-Buch. Beiträge zur Archäozoologie und Prähistorischen Anthropologie VII, 51–58. Available online.
Novozhenov, V. & Jacobson-Tepfer, E. 2020: Rock Art Chronicles of Golden Steppe from Karatau to Altai Volume 2. Available online.
Tacon, P. S., Huisheng, T., & Aubert, M. 2016: Naturalistic animals and hand stencils in the rock art of Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, Northwest China. Rock Art Research 33:1, 19–31. Available online.