A skeleton is for life, not just for Christmas

Skeleton in Christmas hat

Finding my skeleton

I’ve bought a skeleton. He was hiding behind four gilded ornamental pineapples in a dingy corner of a local auction house.  His plastic bones were hanging in the right order, he was moveable and, like most anatomical skeletons, male. (Female versions are rare and cost an arm and a leg).  He was silent but we had an instant connection.

Making a bid

Browsing in an auction house was tricky, like a game of three-dimensional poker. I was a novice, so took my cue from others. It seemed communal yet competitive, sociable but filled with low cunning. Some bidders gave off an air of unconcern, as if out for a Sunday stroll. Others honed in at once on their target, chatting in hushed tones to decide on a price.

There was only one skeleton in the sale and others might want him. How much was he worth to me? I knew I’d find him useful, but didn’t mind if he went elsewhere. Best to treat it like a game where the outcome didn’t matter. So I studied a telescope, a yellow diving helmet and a silent pair of peacocks hoping to throw rivals off the musty scent of sternum and femur. Then I made a nonchalant foray into pineapple corner to settle on my bid.

Internal body map

When I started having Alexander lessons my internal body map was, at best, sketchy. I hadn’t paid much attention to skeletal structure since school biology lessons with Mr Brodie. Where my bones and joints were, what they did or how they moved was not important knowledge.  Or so I thought.

But without a body map I had no sense of what was possible and moved in a more compressed and restricted way than I needed to. With Alexander work my body map has become more accurate.  My movement is now more in harmony with my joints and internal structure rather than ignoring or working against them. Seeing a life-size skeleton during Alexander lessons and training has been part of this process. Without doubt the plastic figure behind the pineapples could be of use.

Looking after my skeleton

My auction house strategies were successful.  No-one else bid, and I secured the skeleton at a modest price. “He’s a good dancer” laughed the receptionist. “We’ve enjoyed having him around”.  So the next challenge was to escort him home.

He blinked as we emerged into the sunlight and paused, uncertain. We set off uphill. An arm (his) fell off.  I stopped, picked it up and carried on. A black cab came to a sudden halt as I wheeled him on creaking castors over the zebra crossing.

Crowds parted as we continued and two waiters at a pavement cafe laid down steaming spaghetti meatballs for a quick selfie.  We made stately progress onward to my front door and I invited him in.

I’ve repaired his arm and re-aligned his hip joints. He’s definitely not just for Christmas.  Both he and my own skeleton are for life. I need to take care of us both now.

Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher.

Palindrome by William Cobbing
Don’t try this at home. Palindrome 2003 by William Cobbing (Wellcome Collection)


Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel

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.