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



Anatomy now and then

cover of children's book on the human body
We have weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays

Term 4

Finding information about the body nowadays is easy.  For our weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays, one of us picks a topic and researches it on the internet or in books from our library. Within a few hours we can pull together a short presentation based on reliable sources and in non-technical language to share with our fellow students.

But it’s not always been as straightforward as this.  I realised that when I visited the Hunterian Museum in central London this week, shortly before it shuts for three years as part of a major redevelopment of its home at the Royal College of Surgeons.  The museum houses the collection of  anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). It’s a bit like an 18th century Wikipedia for medical students – anything you needed to know about anatomy at that time, including a giraffe, was in his museum or dissecting rooms.

What’s inside the museum

On a midweek afternoon I slipped past the reception desk and headed up the majestic staircase to the museum, looking forward to its ghoulish ambience.  The combination of over 3000 glass cases filled with animal and human specimens combined with eerie light levels and free entry make this a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.  It’s not often you overhear the words dissection, intestine, crocodile and syphilis while going round a museum.  Not for young children, though, or the faint of heart.

Over three decades Hunter collected and analysed animal and human body parts, both healthy and diseased, with his collection eventually reaching up to 14,000 specimens.  He used them as research subjects for his own experiments and as teaching aids for medical students.  I learned a bit more from the guidebook about John Hunter, and it made him sound not unlike FM Alexander: “as a teacher Hunter encouraged his pupils to think for themselves, to trust what they observed of the human body and always to ask questions rather than accepting established doctrine.  Hunter’s own lectures changed from year to year as his research and experiments developed his understanding.”

He suspended the specimens on threads to stop them sinking, and stored them in glass jars full of alcohol, sealed originally with pig’s bladder, tin and lead, then painted over with pitch.  In the 20th century during wartime, the size of the museum made it hard to move out of London, and about 10,000 specimens were destroyed in 1941 when the College building was hit by several incendiary bombs.

How we understood the body

Having had my fill of the glass jars, I was drawn to look at the Evelyn tables, dating from before Hunter’s time.  These are four large anatomical wooden boards, displayed upright, containing dried human tissue laid down and varnished on to show the nervous system, arteries and veins.  They were prepared in 1646 in Padua for John Evelyn, the diarist and traveller, and are thought to be the oldest anatomical preparations in Europe.  It is salutary to think that this was the way to understand the inner workings of the human body 370 years ago.

Today we take it for granted that animal and human anatomy are different, and forget that early anatomists assumed anatomy of all mammals was the same.  Through imaging, scans and cameras we can see inside the human body to an extent unimaginable to surgeons in Hunter’s time.  And through the widespread distribution of the printed word and the searchable ease of the internet we can access anatomical knowledge instantly and feel confident that it accurately represents how our bodies work.  So when I do my next anatomy presentation on Thursday,  I will remember John Hunter and his contribution to the knowledge I am so easily able to find and to share.