The first ice skates were made from the leg bones of animals. Skaters simply stood on them (tying them on was optional) and pushed themselves along with metal-tipped poles. The skater in the picture is using what seems to have been the most common technique: pushing with one pole between the legs. Two poles were also used in some areas.
The earliest skate candidates found so far are from Albertfalva, an early Bronze Age site near Budapest. These skates, which were made from horse bones, date to approximately 2500 BC. You can read more about them in Choyke & Bartosiewicz (2005), but their identification seems less certain now. More definite skates start to appear in central Europe during the Late Bronze Age. Skating on bones remained very popular well into the twentieth century, but was most popular during the Middle Ages.
Edberg & Karlsson (2016) argue that in medieval Scandinavia, bone skates were toys for children and used only for recreation, not for any practical purpose, because the hundreds of bone skates from two sites in Sweden are sized for children’s feet. This squares with William fitz Stephen’s twelfth-century account of bone skates in England:
“When the great marsh that washes the north wall of the city is frozen over, swarms of young men issue forth to play games on the ice. … Others, more skilled at winter sports, put on their feet the shin-bones of animals, binding them firmly round their ankles, and, holding poles shod with iron in their hands, which they strike from time to time against the ice, they are propelled swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from an engine of war. Sometimes, by mutual consent, two of them run against each other in this way from a great distance, and, lifting their poles, each tilts against the other. Either one or both fall, not without some bodily injury, for, as they fall, they are carried along a great way beyond each other by the impetus of their run, and wherever the ice comes in contact with their heads, it scrapes off the skin utterly. Often a leg or an arm is broken, if the victim falls with it underneath him; but theirs is an age greedy of glory, youth yearns for victory, and exercises itself in mock combats in order to carry itself more bravely in real battles.” (Douglas and Greenaway, 1968:961)
I made a pair of bone skates from bones sold as dog treats and tried them out. I found that it is quite easy to skate without having the skates attached to my feet. In fact, this method has certain advantages: it is easy to jump off the skates if I hit a patch of rough ice, and it is much easier to get up after falling if I do it in my boots and then step back onto the skates.
The main disadvantage of bone skates compared with modern metal-bladed skates is their lack of maneuverability. Bone skates slide forwards, backwards, and sideways equally well. This makes it extremely difficult to stop or turn, problems which were well-known to skaters. In his description of games played on Gotland, P. A. Säve includes the following warning about bone skates:
“When the ice is very glassy, it goes at a burning speed; the most dangerous part … is splitting apart: the bone skates easily run to the sides, and that when sliding, one cannot turn aside or change course, if one sees a deep hole in front of one. The only thing to do in this case is to set the pole between the legs, lean back on it, and let it scratch the ice to slightly arrest the motion; but then, one should not be too close to the danger.” (Säve and Gustavson 1948:77, my translation)
This lack of maneuverability means that playing games like hockey or knattleikr on bone skates would have been impossible, but does not rule out the possibility of doing tricks. I was able to do a two-foot spin on my bone skates. Jumping tricks like those done by skateboarders may be possible, but I have not attempted any (yet).
A good place to learn more about bone skates is knochenarbeit.de, which includes a database of a few thousand bone skates.
O. Herman. 1902. Knochenschlittschuh, Knochenkufe, Knochenkeitel: Ein Beitrag zur näheren Kenntnis der prähistorischen Langknochenfunde. Mittheilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien, 32:217–238.
A. M. Choyke & L. Bartosiewicz. 2005. Skating with horses: Continuity and parallelism in prehistoric Hungary. Revue de Paléo-biologie, spéc. 10:317–326.
R. Edberg & J. Karlsson. 2016. Bone skates and young people in Birka and Sigtuna. Fornvännen 111:7–16.
D. C. Douglas and G. W. Greenaway, eds. 1968. English Historical Documents, Volume 2: 1042–1189. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
P. A. Säve and H. Gustavson. 1948. Svenska lekar, volume 1: Gotländska lekar. Uppsala: Almqvist och Wicksells Boktryckeri AB.
8 thoughts on “Bone skates”
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