Scottish deer bones – episode 1

by Barnaby Brown & Sylvia Stevens

200 deer shinbones

Reproducing ancient auloi/tibiae is fraught with difficulties. One obstacle is getting hold of the raw material: tibia bones. Barnaby was corresponding with two aulos makers in May, Robin Howell in Canada and Marco Sciascia in Italy. Both had problems getting hold of tibia bones of the right dimensions, in sufficient quantity, optimally processed for strength and durability.

Every summer in Scotland, thousands of deer shin bones are removed from venison carcasses. This happens on the estates, before the meat goes to wholesalers. Overseeing this operation are the estate Keepers,  professionals who lead the shooting and work the dogs. The Keepers are responsible for deer management, keeping the population under control and in good health.

We are grateful to two individuals who put us in touch with their local Keepers: Stuart Letford, editor of the Piping Times, and David Greig, who was at the time writing an English version of a play by Aeschylus, The Suppliant Women.

On 18 July 2016, Barnaby’s father collected 200 red deer shinbones from Robert Wilkinson, an antler merchant in Bridge of Cally. Dimensions were ‘as they came’ (i.e. no selection), front and rear legs (tibiae and metapodial), skin removed, bagged and frozen. The bones were transferred to a plastic storage box then filled with water and left outdoors in the sun to macerate. 15 weeks later, on 3 November, Barnaby took off the lid and tipped out the water:

200 macerated bones

Fat had floated to the top and the smell was – well, you can imagine! Barnaby sloshed several buckets of water over them to wash off loose matter. A high-pressure hose would have been more effective but was not available. It was raining – a week of Scottish weather would have done the job, but dogs might have had a feast. After scrubbing a few bones, it became clear that they weren’t quite ready – some sinews still clung on tightly. Perhaps a higher temperature would have accelerated the maceration process. This all took place at a cottage overlooking Loch Awe in Argyll, without the benefit of Greek summer temperatures.

The processing is critical. Maceration in water in a sealed container, followed by a bath of diluted hydrogen peroxide, seems to be a suitable method (see http://bone-lust.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/whitening-bone-teeth-hydrogen-peroxide.html). Allowing insects and sunshine to do their work would be another option. Bones for making auloi can’t be boiled and bleached because that breaks down the structure and they become brittle.

The next day, 4 November, Sylvia collected the bones in Glasgow:

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At the raw stage, the knee cartilage is very strongly bonded to the bone. After 15 weeks of maceration, however, it had dropped off most of the bones and, where still attached, could easily be prized off by hand:

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Many bones are unusable – too small or too deeply indented. Aulos makers need tubes of circular cross-section with particular internal and external diameters. Perhaps the waste product could be used in medicine: a study published in 2014 found that the administration of deer bone extract protected against bone destruction in osteoarthiritic rats.

Sylvia has taken on the processing and shipping as a small business sideline – she lives in Perth, near the antler merchant who deals with Keepers all over Scotland. She is excited about developing a reliable supply of ‘instrument-grade’ tibia bones. If you are interested, please get in touch with her directly:

Sylvia Stevens <southeskcats@gmail.com>

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One Response to Scottish deer bones – episode 1

  1. Pingback: Scottish deer bones – episode 2 | The Workshop of Dionysus

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