I’ve finally gotten hold of Oleg Oleynikov’s paper on the bone skates from medieval Novgorod. It came out last year, but only recently appeared in the online archive of Russian Archaeology (2021, issue 4, pages 102–118). It’s in Russian, and I don’t know Russian, so I have been looking at the pictures and references and using Google translate. This post is a summary of what I thought was interesting.
The paper describes 44 skates and 7 skate blanks. Virtually all the skates date to the period between the second half of the eleventh century and the beginning of the thirteenth century. There are no thirteenth-century skates (possibly due to a plague between 1216 and 1230?) , and three skates are later, two from the fourteenth century and one from the fifteenth. They’re made from horse and cattle bones, distributed as in this table:
Oleynikov thoughtfully includes the dimensions of the bones and remarks that ones in the 17–20 cm length range were sized for children. Seven of the skates qualify, plus five fragments that could have been under 20 cm as complete skates (I don’t know how much is missing). There are also five skates (including one fragment) that are just over 20 cm (less than 21 cm). That seems rather low to me; there are a lot of big skates in the collection, including some over 30 cm long. The biggest is 39 cm, surely an adult size, but there’s also a 29.8 cm long horse radius that could have been even bigger before it broke! It would be interesting to compare the distribution of skate sizes to the ones Edberg & Karlsson found for Birka and Sigtuna.
Moving on, Oleynikov classifies the skates into two main types based on whether they have holes for bindings or not. Most of them (23) are type 2, which means no holes. Eleven skates are type 1 (with holes); the other 10 skates are fragmentary with the epiphyses missing, making it impossible to tell whether they had holes. The remaining 7 are blanks. Oleynikov goes on to discuss the different types of holes in detail, coming up with 10 different skate types based on the placement and orientation of the binding holes.
The other classification dimension is group A or B. Most of the skates belong to group B, what I think of as “regular” skates—like the ones described in my book. The four group A skates seem to be “split bones“, a skate type that was apparently unique to Scandinavia (Thurber 2020, 106), now found in Russia! But it makes sense because Novgorod was known to be home to many Scandinavians.
Towards the end of the paper, Oleynikov mentions the two main skating techniques (pole-pushing while standing on two skates and skateboarding—standing on one skate and pushing with the other foot) but adds some ideas that I found interesting:
- He suggests that pole-pushing was better with attached skates because skating with unattached skates would have required better balance. I’m not sure about this; I found it quite easy to pole-push with unattached skates (though Küchelmann and Zidarov had some trouble). He adds that the reason it’s so hard to identify the metal points from the tips of skating poles in the archaeological record is that they were made from random scraps, which seems possible.
- He suggests that the skateboarding technique would have been better with unattached skates because it was easier. Personally, I found it much more difficult than pole-pushing, attached or not.
The paper concludes with the extremely interesting observation that the Russian word for skates (коньки) is a diminutive of the word for horse and that the pole-pushing technique looks kind of like riding a hobby horse. This connects with the idea of a link between bone skates and horses suggested by Choyke & Bartosiewicz that I included in Skates Made of Bone.
A. M. Choyke & L. Bartosiewicz. 2005. Skating with horses: Continuity and parallelism in prehistoric Hungary. Revue de Paléo-biologie, spéc. 10:317–326.
Rune Edberg and Johnny Karlsson. 2015. Isläggar från Birka och Sigtuna. En undersökning av ett vikingatida och medeltida fyndmaterial. Stockholm Archaeological Reports 43. Stockholm: Stockholms universitet.
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.