Sven T. Kjellberg’s experiments with bone skates

Sven T. Kjellberg. Photo
courtesy of Wikimedia
Commons.

In 1940, Sven T. Kjellberg published the results of his experiments on bone skates. He concluded that the bones he evaluated weren’t used as skates, but others could have been. I reached a different conclusion from his results.

Kjellberg took a pair of bone skates to a small pond in his neighborhood to try them out (pp. 76-77). Pushing with a pole in the usual manner, he was able to get going pretty well. The problem came when he reached the end of the pond. Turning on bone skates is extremely difficult, and he was only able to accomplish it by bending his knees inward and pressing on the insides of the skates. This, he reasoned, would produce noticeable wear on the bones—after just ten minutes, he could already see wear starting to appear. Skates subjected to more intense use would eventually become rounded on the inside.

To me, this seems more like a side effect of suboptimal experimental conditions. It seems more likely that bone skates were generally used in fairly straight lines—across lakes, for example. Olaus Magnus describes long-distance races on bone skates, and William fitz Stephen‘s skaters glided in straight lines toward each other while jousting.

Kjellberg’s other main point is that in Lund, where the bones he was examining were found, winter terrain would have consisted of many small skating areas, such as the spaces between dams along a river. Skaters would have had to walk along streets and other non-icy surfaces to get from one bit of ice to the next. This, he argues, would have left marks on their skates.

For today’s skaters, the response to this is simple: use skate guards. There is no evidence for guards for bone skates, and they don’t seem necessary. This situation could have encouraged skaters to simply not attach their skates to their feet. Tying bone skates on wasn’t necessary because skaters never lifted their feet from the ice. Unattached skates would have made it easy to reach the edge of one skating area, step off the skates, pick them up, carry them to the next skating area, put them down, step back on, and glide away. In this situation, bindings would have been more trouble than they were worth.

Kjellberg doesn’t rule out the use of bone skates as skates, but does say he doesn’t think the bones he was examining were skates because the wear patterns weren’t what he expected based on his experiments. I think more extensive experiments would have helped.

Reference

Sven T. Kjellberg (1940). “Gnida, mangla, och stryka.” Kulturens √•rsbok, 68-91.