Science and Heritage Programme

Cultural Objects worked in Skeletal Hard Tissues

University of Bradford

Award holder -  Dr Sonia O'Connor


Cultural Objects worked in Skeletal Hard Tissues

University of Bradford

Dr S O'Connor
Amount Awarded: £244,324.00

From earliest times, people have used the hard skeletal parts of other animals as a source of raw material, from simple bone tools to subtle and evocative works of art. Worldwide, and throughout the human past, skeletal tissues have been valued for their range of material properties, their appearance and their versatility. Some, such as bone, antler and ivory, are hard, resilient tissues. Others, such as horn, tortoiseshell and baleen, are natural plastics that could be re-shaped by heat and pressure. These materials, and others such as feathers and hoof, were worked into everyday objects, tools and artworks, or symbols of power and affinity. Originally a valuable and sustainable by-product of hunting, some of these materials, such as elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn, have been highly valued, leading to targeted intensive extraction, at a high cost to populations of some species. Even at the  beginning of the 20th century, objects such as bone-handled tooth brushes, shoe-horns, tortoiseshell combs, baleen corset stays (confusingly known as 'whalebone' corsets) and bone gaming dice would have been familiar domestic items. Today these materials have been replaced by alloys and synthetic plastics, and animal conservation concerns have made some (ivory, tortoiseshell) unavailable and unacceptable. With the passing of the raw materials, familiarity with their characteristics and properties has been lost, posing a challenge for those who work with historic and prehistoric artefacts made from them.

This research programme aims to advance our knowledge of the use of skeletal hard tissues as raw materials, showing how materials were harvested, selected and worked, by enhancing and validating our confidence in their identification. Although some materials survive burial in a greatly altered state, if at all, items made in skeletal tissues make up a significant proportion of archaeological finds and cultural objects in all kinds of museum collections. Correct and confident identification of raw materials is crucial. The choice of raw materials will reflect their physical properties and their availability, but not all choices will have been strictly utilitarian. Choices can reflect cultural tradition and social identity, belief systems, status, wealth or power, and changes through time can indicate social changes. Correct identification of materials is thus central to artefact research, and a more detailed understanding of the harvesting and use of these materials will shed light on past human impact on some of our most iconic and vulnerable animal species.

The research will be based at the University of Bradford, which has a long record of bringing the Partnership with The Henry Moseley X-Ray Imaging Facility, University of Manchester, will provide highresolution 3D imaging. Other project partners include a number of major museums (Leeds, Horniman, Hull Museums, Hawley Collection, York Archaeological Trust) that hold collections rich in hard tissue objects, such as objects from the early days of the Sheffield cutlery industry, objects from the days of whaling, and archaeological objects from times when rare and exotic materials held great significance. Together, Bradford and the project partners bring together an exceptional range of scientific skills and equipment and an unusually diverse range of cultural objects. By allowing the raw material specialist to spend time working in museums alongside curators and conservators, the project will ensure an effective and direct exchange of information and ideas between scientists and practitioners, and that information can then greatly enhance the presentation of these fascinating materials to the public through special presentations and permanent exhibitions.