Cabinet of Curiosities

Cutting Remarks

Poleaxed cow scull, 10th century

For many years I worked as an osteoarchaeologist specialising in the study of animal bones. I am particularly interested in the craft of butchery. I first pondered a career in this area when I worked in 1981 at the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeological excavations on the medieval site of Wood Quay in Dublin. Several thousand sacks of animal bones were recovered and, exposed to such a huge body of material, it was only a matter of time before the penny dropped. This twinned my lifelong interests in natural history and archaeology. I was hooked!

Sheep ‘stunner’

Until the adoption of the captive bolt pistol, cattle were killed using an implement known as a poleaxe. The head had a spike on one edge and an axe-like blade on the other and was mounted on the end of a long wooden handle. Once the animal was tethered, the butcher drove the spike through the frontal bone of the skull, the function of which was to stun the animal prior to slaughter. The skull in the photo dates from the 10th century and clearly displays the extensive damage caused by a poleaxe wielded over 1000 years ago. After killing, the horns were often removed and horn-workers who plied their skills in the medieval towns used them as raw material from which they fashiond a range of items including combs and spoons. The photo of the chisel-like implement I am holding was used for stunning sheep and was retrieved from a derelict slaughter- house some years ago.

Cattle pelvis with ‘caput’ of femur in position

In medieval times the bones, once the main meat had been removed, were usually reduced to smaller fragments and used in the preparation of soups and stews. The triangular-shaped bone in the photos is a cow’s pelvic socket. Initially caked in clay, I found the head or ‘caput’ of the femur still in place in the socket when I washed it. Around 800 years ago a butcher had hacked through the neck of the femur in order to separate the leg from the pelvis. One image shows the caput in place in the socket, the other removed from same. 

‘Caput’ removed from its pelvic socket

I vividly recall an incident when I was around 9 years old that was perhaps the initial catalyst for my later career. I was standing, peering up sheepishly, at the formidable hulk of our local butcher. I had been dispatched by my Mother to go and ask for a bone for the dog. Accustomed to such requests, he produced the distal or lower end of a cow’s humerus, though I didn’t know what bone it belonged to at the time, wrapped it up in a large sheet of paper and handed it to me. Tightly tucked under my arm, I headed home triumphantly. We hadn’t got a dog! The bone, in reality, was destined for the pot where it would help to bulk up a soup. Different times for sure and a fine example of continuity in culinary skills with the inhabitants of medieval Dublin.

Medieval combmakers discarded off-cuts

The last photo details a pair of antler off-cuts, waste discarded by craftsmen using this material to fashion combs, pins and such like. Red deer shed their antlers between April and May each year and in medieval times these were collected and sold as raw material to the combmakers whose workshops were based in the towns. The specimen on the right in the photo is the basal section of a naturally shed antler known as a burr. The one on the left is still attached to a section of skull which indicates that this particular animal had been hunted and killed before its antlers were subsequently removed. If you look closely you can see fine saw-marks on the flat cut surfaces of this specimen, a legacy of the craftsman’s skill.

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