H. W. Jacobi on bone skates

I recently got hold of a copy of De Nederlandse glissen by H. W. Jacobi, thanks to some kind people in the Netherlands. It’s a paper written for a course at the University of Amsterdam in 1976. This paper has gone viral (in the bone skates sense) despite its obscurity. It has been cited far more times than you’d expect for a student project (which is not at all).

Jacobi catalogs the bone skates in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden and the Groninger Museum, plus five from other places. The 160 artifacts that make it through the identification process (based on their shapes and wear patterns) are then classified into ten groups, which Wiebe Blau has summarized. An eleventh group, containing 20 artifacts, is for sled runners. Unfortunately, none of these skates are dated, or at least, Jacobi doesn’t provide dates for them. General periods in which bone skates were used in the Netherlands (from the 7th to 14th century at different places) are given, but that’s all.

Jacobi completes the project by making three pairs of bone skates and experimenting with them. The experiments are pretty similar to ones conducted by other archaeologists, most notably Arthur MacGregor at about the same time and Hans Christian Küchelmann and Petar Zidarov more recently. The most interesting difference is that Jacobi didn’t use a pole to push for fear of messing up the ice. Instead, Jacobi’s brother was responsible for propulsion: he (wearing his  modern skates) pushed Jacobi around the ice. Surprisingly, Jacobi was able to steer on bone skates. Nobody else has been able to do this, with disastrous results: In 1915, Antti Juvel, a 75-year-old Finn, reported that

if there was open water ahead, you had no choice but going into it, for it would be too dangerous to fall on the ice in such a great speed and turning was impossible.

Antti Juvel, translated by Auli Touronen and quoted in Küchelmann & Zidarov (2005:437)

Overall, Jacobi’s work is quite short (only 20 pages plus figures) but excellent for a student project. It remains the only detailed summary of the bone skates in these museum collections. However, better general sources on bone skates are available now and have been since Jacobi’s paper was finished—Arthur MacGregor’s two articles came out at about the same time, and he remains one of the heroes of bone skates.


Arthur MacGregor. 1976. “Bone Skates: A Review of the Evidence.” Archaeological Journal 133: 57–74.

Arthur MacGregor. 1975. “Problems in the Interpretation of Microscopic Wear Patterns: The Evidence from Bone Skates.” Journal of Archaeological Science 2: 385–390.

Hans Christian Küchelmann and Petar Zidarov. 2005. “Let’s skate together! Skating on bones in the past and today.” In From Hooves to Horns, from Mollusc to Mammoth: Manufacture and Use of Bone Artefacts from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Worked Bone Research Group at Tallinn, 26th–31st of August 2003, ed. H. Luik, A. M. Choyke, C. Batey, and L. Löugas, pp. 425–445. Tallinn: Ajaloo Instituut.