Quite frankly, this is a post I have been wanting to write but also avoiding like the plague. It will easily be one of my most personal posts to-date, as it shares parts of my childhood history. I have always collected objects and items from the natural world – having amassed a large rock and insect collection in my early years, and at some point beginning to include bones. I grew up in the country, and so the natural world and its circle of life were not at all foreign, scary, or the least bit gross in my mind. We had dogs that would regularly bring roadkill up from the wooded ravine, the harsh Iowa winters often took a toll on the old and sick animals, and our cats would present me with a wide array of interesting rodents and birds. So, quite naturally, I became interested in bones.
This wasn’t the typical childhood hobby as it didn’t involve toys, ceramic figurines, or the normal collectibles, though it did involve books – field guides to be exact. It wasn’t a hobby that I freely discussed with peers at school. Usually friends found about my bone collection while standing in front of it, looking at stark white skulls that I had painstakingly put back together, labeled, and put on display in my glass case. My parents didn’t discourage my collecting, but instead bought me a hinged lid, glass display case, much like a Queen Anne jewelry case, in hopes of containing and organizing it. As the collection grew, my parents maintained a good-natured attitude about my hobby, and to some degree, encouraged my curiosity with the natural world. I was however, firmly told no, when I checked out a book from the library on taxidermy – my dad very firmly the line there.
Even as an adult, when the bone collecting comes up, I skirt away from the topic, never knowing how others will react. My husband one time said in the presence of some friends, “Give yourself credit, those are museum-quality bones you have in your collection, a collection you started as a kid.” That encouragement from him has given me the courage to share my self-taught trade secrets on cleaning bones.
The display case housing my collection is long gone, but in a recent basement clean-out, my parents came across the tub with what remains of my collection. After tossing out the unsalvageable, I am in the process of trying to decide what parts to allow my children to keep, what to take to school for still life study, and what to display in my current home as a proud reminder of my childhood love. You can see the beginnings of this display in the vertebrae on the living room built-ins and the illuminated deer head on the living room wall. Now, thanks to recent inspiration from Busy Mockingbird’s post on Beetles and Bugs, I think I will combine my artmaking and collection in some interesting ways.
I remember when I discovered the rich Southwest scenes and vivid abstract paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and wanting to know more about her and life life. I was thrilled reading of her discovery of bones in New Mexico and shipping them back to her studio so she could paint them. It felt like an ah-ha moment, like perhaps my career choice in the arts made the collecting of bones more appropriate and a part of my destiny.
Just as Georgia O’Keeffe saw something beautiful in bones, I was always attracted to the lines, negative spaces, and curves of bones. Not only did I draw them, but I learned all I could about bones, preserving, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, museum studies, and similar avenues of study. I thought for many years that I would go into such a field as a career. It was over the course of this self-taught hobby that I learned how to clean the bones, identify species and individual traits, and basic common anatomies.
If I found bones that were not yet bare (i.e. still had skin, fur, etc.), I would place them in an old rabbit cage. This way, there were exposed to the elements and to any helpful bugs that would speed up the process of decay. If you are interested in the fascinating stories that bones can tell, I highly recommend the book, The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist, by Mary H. Manhein. It was one such book I read while delving into this world of bones.
Once the bones are fairly clean, I begin the bleaching process. I used to use actual bleach – but have since moved to a less chemical-laden method. I place all the bones into a large plastic bucket or tub. Next, I boil a large pot or two of water, and I pour into the bucket 1-2 cups of hydrogen peroxide, and then add enough boiling water to submerge the bones.
I always do this outside, for it can be both messy and stinky. I leave the bones to bubble away, usually 4-6 hours. Depending on how debris-free the bones are, one soaking may be enough. If not, I repeat the process. I have been known to don rubber gloves and scrub the bones with an old toothbrush, as this speeds up the cleaning process significantly.
When the debris is gone from the bones, they are placed to dry, in the sun. The sun is what completes the bleaching process, making them a brilliant white.
Here are the bones after drying in the sun. As you can see, there are still a few stained areas. With a few more cleanings, they may go away, or they may be there to stay. There is where using household bleach may be helpful, if you truly want them perfectly sun-bleached. The skull is from a raccoon – a roadkill find. The jawbones are from a deer – a winter death in my parents’ field.
The rest of the deer had already been cleaned and mounted on the wall to be lit up with battery-powered lights. I love the new variety that are strung on thin wire – it makes for easy manipulating of the lighting arrangement. I put this up back in the winter, but have kept it up all year long and have been enjoying it still.
I am always open to questions about the collection, my methods, and the cleaning and preserving processes I use. I have never done any taxidermy and have never killed any of the animals in my collection. I am not against hunting, it just isn’t for me.