Close to the bone

Bones from the Museum of London's teaching collection
Bones from the Museum of London’s teaching collection

Summer holidays

Continuing my explorations into bones of all types, I spent an evening at the Museum of London in the company of Jelena Bekvalac. She’s Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology. A large crowd joined me to hear about the skeletons under London’s streets.

The Centre looks after 20,000 human skeletal remains. These emerged from archaeological digs (think Time Team) ahead of construction projects in London’s recent building boom.  Nothing in the collection is less than 100 years old – it starts in prehistoric London, continues through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods and ends in the 19th century. Mostly they unearth bone, very little is soft tissue. On a good day they find a high-status lead-lined coffin, perhaps revealing hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and moustache, often still vibrant with colour.

“It’s difficult to stay in one place in perpetuity” Jelena commented in a deadpan voice. It seems careful burial rites at the time of death are important. But digs show that in the past Londoners randomly moved or rearranged skeletons from old burial grounds as the city grew. Most people are buried lying down on their backs – if someone is face down they’ve done bad deeds while alive. Face and ribs are often damaged, being more fragile than other body parts.

My interest is in the living, moving body. But Jelena is like a detective, interrogating bones after death, often centuries later. I was surprised how much she can tell about movement patterns, illness and general health just by analysing bones.

There can be changes from arthritis, scoliosis or gout. Male and female skeletons are different, usually in size and shape of skull and pelvis.  She estimates age from teeth, bone length, wear and tear, and whether bones have fused and cartilage ossified. The younger the skeleton, the more accurate the estimates. It seems the body can age assymetrically, so some bones seem younger than others. To deal with this she looks at both sides of the body before deciding on age.

An acute disease, like Black Death or fever, kills quickly and leaves little trace in the bone. But chronic illnesses have plenty of time to change bone health. She can’t often identify what did kill someone, but to her it’s obvious what didn’t. Old fractures, amputations, holes in the skull can heal over time, even from a period before antibiotics. A life lived with osteoporosis or arthritis is visible in the bone – painful but not fatal.

The evening left me pondering what story my own bones would tell.

Skeleton from the Black Death

The skeleton above was a victim of the Black Death in London from 1348-9. It belongs to a man who died between the ages of 18 and 25. Bone analysis suggests he moved to London from central or eastern England around the age of 5. He was breastfed in infancy, suffered nutritional health stress, and had a largely plant-based diet.  He had dental caries and gum disease. The skeleton was lent by the Museum of London to Charterhouse Museum, which was built on top of London’s largest cemetery for Black Death victims, and where it is now on display.


Dances with whales

Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum
The blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum

Summer holidays

When I started having Alexander lessons my own bodymap was woolly or non-existent, I didn’t know what was where. Slowly it’s shifting closer to reality. I’ve refined it this summer by looking at the skeleton of something very different to me – the whale.  I cleaned whale bones a few weeks ago. Now I’ve visited the whales exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum and paid my respects to their newly installed blue whale skeleton, Hope.

Before I went I knew whales were mammals, like us. I wasn’t aware they started out as four-legged land-based animals. Over time, as they moved from land to water, their back legs disappeared, along with most of their pelvic bones. Their front legs became flippers.  They’ve adapted to life in water, but their skeleton is mammal not fish. When they swim, fluke-powered using their strong boneless tails, the movement is up and down along the backbone, not side to side like a fish.

The blue whale skeleton has 356 bones, compared with the 206 in the human skeleton
Gracefully diving to feed

I stood under the vast diving skeleton of the blue whale. I imagined its undulating spine powering it gracefully through the sea. I don’t live underwater, but it’s time for me to trust my back and ‘forget about my legs’ when I move.

Blue whale flipper
Blue whale flipper – no bending at the elbow

Whales have short, stiff necks, and fused neck vertebrae. This stabilises the head, so there’s not much mobility. Movement comes partly from their front limbs. These are now like paddles, with shorter bones than our arms, and fixed elbow joints.  Shoulder joints and shoulderblades remain, connecting flippers into the spine.

Shoulders and arms have been a bugbear for me – letting go of tension, becoming aware of joints, using less effort to pick things up. The sheer size and otherness of whalebones is helpful here – like me and not like me at the same time.

Flipper of the northern bottlenose whale that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
Paddle-like flipper of the northern bottlenose whale
Shoulder joint and scapula (shoulderblade) of blue whale
Blue whale shoulderblade and shoulder joint
Ganges river dolphin flipper, looking eerily similar to a human hand
Ganges river dolphin flipper, not unlike a human hand

It’s the skull of the whale that’s most altered since its ancestors walked on land. Whales have no external ears. Instead they have sophisticated internal systems to hear and communicate under water. Their nostrils now sit on top of the skull, with one or more blowholes. The skull shape has altered to make space for elongated jaws. Toothed whales have asymmetric skulls, no sense of smell, and teeth. Baleen whales, like the blue whale, are toothless. They use baleen plates to filter fish or krill from large mouthfuls of water.

To my sorrow I’ve never encountered a live whale. But I saw my first dead one in a whaling station in Iceland in 1983. I dug out the photos of enormous whale innards being matter-of-factly cut up and hosed down, and remembered the overpowering smell and noise.

Back to this summer, and my dances with whales are over.  Their eerily beautiful water-soaked bones have given me food for thought about living and moving on land and my own bodymap.

Skull of Cuvier's beaked whale
Skull of Cuvier’s beaked whale – elongated jaws, nostrils and blowhole on top
The Thames whale - a northern bottlenose that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
The Thames whale that became stranded in the river in 2006
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, fused from old age, dug up in London's docklands in 2010
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, the two on the right are fused from old age
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale – there are more than 400 baleen plates
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates. These grow only from the upper jaw, over 200 on each side
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates
Corset stays made of baleen plates (known as whalebone) from the Museum of London
Breathe in: baleen plates were used to make stays for whalebone corsets

Cleaning whale bones

The whale skeleton being put back together again
Working on the whale skeleton at the Whale Weekender

Summer holidays Terms 4/5

Where do you go to spring clean dusty whale bones with smoke sponges and groom sticks? At the wonderful Whale Weekender organised by curators at the Grant Museum of Zoology, as it opened its bony archives to volunteers to sort and clean the 157-year old skeleton of a Northern Bottlenose whale. The skull has been on display in the museum, but the bones had lain hidden and unappreciated since it acquired the skeleton in 1948.  Now the time had come to release them from storage, clean and label each piece, and fit them back together in a gigantic jigsaw.

When I arrived, the skull lay in solitary splendour on a long table, jaws held open by two foam blocks, and with a train of tissue paper behind it, ready to receive the bones as they emerged.

Whale skull

Gloved volunteers at two cleaning tables were already in full swing, using dry smoke sponges to coax the dirt from large bone surfaces and the more delicate groom sticks to tackle crevices or crumbly places.

cleaning whalebone

I took my turn at cleaning, enjoying the way the smoke sponges brought out the dirt without damaging the bone, and chatting to my enthusiastic sailor neighbour about his whale sightings at sea.

The whale vertebra that I helped to clean
The whale vertebra I helped to clean, number 21 helpfully written on it

Once the vertebrae were free of grime, they were labelled, numbered and returned to the skeleton table to sit in order behind the skull.  Here volunteers and staff swapped knowledge about whale anatomy as they worked out which bone fitted where.

Skull and fused cervical vertebrae
The whale has seven cervical (neck) vertebrae, all are fused into one piece, just below the skull

The tricky part seemed to be the intervertebral discs, which had mostly  been separated from the spinal vertebrae and drilled with holes at some point in the past, presumably for display.  Some had numbers on them, but not all, and each was of a slightly different diameter and shape.

Intervertebral discs

As the spine became more complete, out came a box of ribs, individually wrapped, and it was then a question of pairing up the ribs and fitting them next to the skeleton.  A rogue whale rib, much larger and clearly from a different species, had been stored in the same box, so was carefully put aside for later analysis.

Whale ribs ready to be paired and laid into position
Whale ribs ready to be paired and laid into position

Unfortunately our whale’s flippers were known to be missing, but its shoulderblades (scapulae) and breastbone (sternum), held together by wire, were waiting on a trolley nearby to be slotted in.

Whale scapula and sternum

The history of the whale we were cleaning is well known.  It was caught and killed in the Bristol Channel in 1860 by two fishermen, and measured over eight metres. Initially it was exhibited to the public, but after it began to decompose, it was sold to William Mable. He was the founder of the North Somerset Museum in Weston-super-Mare, and thoughtfully buried it in his garden for a couple of years to hasten decomposition.  His understanding wife then boiled the bones, one by one, enabling the articulated skeleton to be displayed in the museum in Weston-super-Mare until 1948, when it made its way to the Grant Museum’s storage facilities.

Label for the Northern Bottlenose whale

It was a fantastic piece of public participation by the museum, and harnessed the power and knowledge of 800 volunteers young and old to assist curators in a project that has been years in the planning.  The staff were enthusiastic, helpful and engaging, wanting to share their love of whale biology with the public, while also moving the museum’s conservation and cataloguing forward.

For me it was fascinating to be part of a piece of museum and anatomical history, to handle and clean the bones, and to compare a whale skeleton with my growing understanding of the human one and notice the similarities and differences.

Ink drawing by Benjamin Mable, of the beached whale being cut up in 1860. Photo: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust 2017
Ink drawing by Benjamin Mable of the beached Northern Bottlenose whale being cut up in 1860. Photo: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust 2017
Whale skull
Twists and turns in the whale skull
Whale skulls from the front
Whale skull from the front
Skull bones up close
Skull bones up close
skeleton taking shape
Skeleton taking shape with discs being slotted in
intervertebral discs, the one on the right has not had a hole drilled through
The disc on the right is in its original state, no hole drilled through
Ribs going into position
Ribs going into position
Tail going into place
Tail going into place, some of the smallest vertebrae were later repairs, made of wood not bone

You may also like to read about

Neck and Neck at London Zoo

Anatomy Now and Then

Skeletons in the Bookshop