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Doug Wurtz's blog

Dem Bison Bones

Do you remember your first childhood anatomy lesson?

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…

The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones.”

An internet search shows many variations of this song. The only thing that doesn’t vary is the order of connectivity: toe to foot, foot to ankle, ankle to leg, and so on.

I don’t remember when I first heard this little ditty, but I have always been fascinated by bones. It may have something to do with being born and raised on a farm where I was constantly surrounded by animals and animal bones.

The galleries in the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum provide a perfect venue for the study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures, also known as osteology.

I decided this fall that it would be fun and educational to write a short presentation on basic bone structure. After a couple of false starts, I enlisted the aid of a friend for a Saturday afternoon search and recovery mission for bison bones. That afternoon’s antics would provide enough material for a separate story, but suffice to say we loaded a pickup with dry, weathered bison bones, unloaded them in my garage (to my wife’s dismay), and I began the search for connectivity; toe to foot to ankle, etc.

Internet sites such as “The Virtual Museum of Idaho” made this a fairly easy project. The “American bison” page (UWBM-35536 -- Bison bison) provides full-color, 360 degree views of each bone of a bison’s skeleton.

Rearticulated bison front limb

Rearticulated bison front limb

With the reference site and a garage half-full of bison bones, some assembly was required. As luck would have it, we had acquired all of the bones on our search to rearticulate the left front leg of a bison. The assembled and properly labeled bones don’t lend themselves to a catchy tune, however:

“The third phalange connects to the second phalange,
the second phalange connects to the first phalange,
the first phalange connects to the metacarpal,
Now shake dem bison bones.”

As all projects seem to do, this one grew and began to take on an educational aspect that I had not envisioned when I identified the first weathered “calcaneus” bone. (Check it out on the Idaho Museum site.)

Comparison of human astragalus (talus) and bison astragalus

Slide from “Bison in A Box” presentation

The more bones that I reassembled, the more I realized how the bones of the front leg of a bison resemble and mirror bones of the human arm. A couple of purchases of a human skeletal hand model and human foot model clearly illustrated this. By this time, a Powerpoint presentation was beginning to take shape, and more bison bones began to fit together. With time, a complete hind leg of a bison was also rearticulated and my fascination grew—this time with the comparison between the “wrist” joints of a human and the corresponding “ankle” joints of a bison.

The North Dakota Heritage Center is a perfect venue for this presentation, where comparisons between the skulls of Bison latifrons and Bison antiquus, the ancestors to the modern Bison bison, are on display.

Bison antiquus skeleton

Bison antiquus skeleton, Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples

A full, life-sized model of the Bison antiquus is fully assembled (rearticulated) and helps illustrate the story of Beacon Island in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. You, as a visitor to the exhibit, can hum whatever version of the bone song you prefer as you study this model.

The basic premise of bone identification has continued to evolve since I plucked that first bison bone from the prairie sod. My research has uncovered many uses for one of the newly discovered bones. The astragalus bone (one of the “ankle” bones of sheep, goats, bison, etc.) was used in Mongolian games of chance, was a useful component of friction fire-starting, and was the basis of a child’s game (“jacks”).

Join us at the Heritage Center as we continue to explore this bony topic and finalize our presentation, “Bison in A Box.”

If I could carry a tune a whole new genre of songs could be sung about bison bones:

“Astragalus connected to calcaneus,
Calcaneus connected to the tibia,
Tibia connected to the femur
And on and on it goes.”

Experimental Archaeology: Flintknapping, Firing, and Fabricating Early Gadgets

I don’t like to shop. My idea of shopping is to know exactly what I want at the store and the aisle that contains the product I need. In, out, done.

I was recently in need of a new set of kitchen knives. Over the years I have sharpened and resharpened the set of Chicago Cutlery knives that my wife and I received as a wedding present. Replacement of the worn-out set was not a problem for me. There is a retail store where I have “shopped” on numerous occasions, and I knew where the knives were located. In, out—wait.

Unfortunately, I like gadgets.

The knives were displayed next to the latest and greatest knife sharpener. I have a number of sharpeners, but I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

Across the aisle from the knives was a display of spaghetti canisters; glass and stainless steel with a screw-top lid. I like spaghetti. It seemed only right that our noodles be kept in the latest kitchen storage innovation.

In, out (not as fast as I had anticipated), done.

Where am I going with this story?

I take it for granted that the store down the street has everything I need. Imagine, if you will, that it was the year 1717 and not 2017, and I needed a new knife, a new knife sharpener, and a food storage container. If the store wasn’t there and I had to craft these items, how would I begin?

The State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) and the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA) are collaborating on a project that explores these questions and more. Every other Friday at 10 a.m., an “Experimental Archaeology” program is conducted at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Experimental Archaeology tools

Some of the tools being used during "Experimental Archaeology"

In public learning spaces in and around the museum, flintknappers, potters, fire-starters, jewelry makers, and other skilled artisans replicate the processes that produced knives, storage containers, fire, personal adornment, and more before retail stores were available for replenishment.

Removing bark from willow branch

Using a piece of Knife River flint to remove bark from a willow branch to make a willow basket.

Consider the knife that I so cavalierly replaced in our kitchen. If I had to make that knife myself, where would I begin? What type of material would I use to fashion the blade? Does Knife River flint knap better than Tongue River silicified sediment? Would heating the material before knapping result in a better product? What size and shape of blade would be best for downing and then processing a bison? What kind of handle would I fashion, and what material would I use? How would I resharpen the blade when it became dull? Where would I do that resharpening? (Certainly not in an earthlodge or tipi, where the kids could step on the razor-sharp flakes.)

Flintknapping demonstration

Gary Jochim demonstrating flintknapping

When the bison was ready for eating, how would it be cooked and served? What if, instead of having glass and stainless steel containers, I had to fashion a pottery vessel by hand? Where would I begin? What type of clay would I use? How would it be tempered so that the vessel wouldn’t crack when fired? How would it be fired and at what temperature? How would I achieve the proper temperature? How would the container be shaped for proper heating, serving, and storage? How would the clay pot be incised or impressed for decoration and identification?

These processes and many more will be replicated at the semi-monthly “Experimental Archaeology” sessions. Our sessions are loose, friendly, and inclusive. Everyone is invited, and no question is too trivial.

A visitor recently asked how long it took to complete the pecking of a groove in a stone hammer. The answer was that you peck until it is done—this can take hours or it can take days, depending on the quality of the work and the resources available. Time takes on a different dimension if you are on a hilltop scanning for bison, looking out for the enemy, waiting for your clay pots to fire, or thinking about the angle of your next percussion strike while knapping a stone tool. “Experimental Archaeology” will put you in the same frame of mind.

Demonstrating pecking a hammerstone

Erik Holland, Curator of Education for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, teaching the art of pecking a hammerstone.

Join us for our next free sessions on August 11 and 25, 10 a.m. to noon, in Project Room A of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

After several experiments, it is obvious to me that I will never be able to eliminate shopping from my life. I do, however, appreciate the gadget store down the street a little more.