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Samuel Vaneeckhout Juho-Antti Junno Anna-Kaisa Puputti Tiina iks

Prehistoric burned bone: use or refuse results of a bone combustion experiment


In this study we focus on the possible use of bone for fuel and interspecies differences in bone combustion. The bases for our research are the results of experiments on bone combustion and of bone mineral density measurements. At the same time this study provides an opportunity to gain further knowledge on taphonomic factors affecting prehistoric faunal assemblages. The preservation of the past faunal remains is an issue of major importance, since the reconstruction of prehistoric subsistence in Finnish archaeology is usually mainly based on faunal remains from archaeological excavations. That is based on the assumption that the refuse fauna are the remains of subsistence and diet1. Other uses of bone, like the use of bone for fuel2, and animalderived materials3 have received less consideration. Differential preservation of skeletal parts and its effect on the skeletal frequencies of a given animal species have received considerable attention within zooarchaeological research4. Less attention has been given to the interspecies comparison in bone preservation, although it can considerably change the species composition of archaeological bone assemblages and affect the interpretation of

Ari Siiriinen, On the cultural ecology of the Finnish Stone Age. Suomen Museo 88. 1981, 540; H. Matiskainen, Studies on the Chronology, Material Culture and Subsistence Economy of the Finnish Mesolithic, 100006000 b.p. Iskos 8. The archaeological society of Finland, Helsinki 1989; P. Ukkonen, Early in the North Utilization of Animal Resources in Northern Finland during Prehistory. Iskos 13. The archaeological Society of Finland, Helsinki 2004, 103 130. Jarmo Kankaanp, Ihmisi kylmill mailla. Eeva-Liisa Schulz & Christian Carpelan (eds.) Varhain pohjoisessa. University of Helsinki, Helsinki 1998, 103123. Milton Nunez, On the food resources available to man in the Stone Age Finland. Finskt Museum 97. 1991, 2454. P. M. Lubinski, Fish heads, fish heads: an experiment of differential bone preservation in a Salmonid fish. Journal of Archaeological Science 23, 175181; M. C. Stiner, On in situ attrition and vertebrate body part profiles. Journal of Archaeological Science 29, 979991.

S. Vaneeckhout J-A. Junno A-K. Puputti T. iks

past subsistence activities5. In interpretation of Finnish prehistoric animal bone assemblages, the poorer preservation of fish6 and bird bone is usually acknowledged7, while the dominance of seal in the animal bone assemblages is usually interpreted as evidence of an economy specialization on seal hunting8. However, we know that the mineral density of seal bone is generally higher than that of bovids and cervids, depending on the skeletal part9. The use of bone as a fuel source is known from historic and ethnographic case studies. The use of bone as fuel has usually been suggested in relation to wood scarcity during the Palaeolithic10 and at northern latitudes11. Storage of bones seems to have been crucial in this context12. Experiments on the use of bones as fuel are limited. The main of the previous experimental work on bone combustion concentrated on finding the criteria to distinguish whether bone was burned and to evaluate the burning temperature13.

R. Lee Lyman, Bone density and differential survivorship of fossil classes. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 3, 1984; L. A. Kreutzer, Bison and deer bone mineral densities: comparisons and implications for the interpretation of archaeological faunas. Journal of Archaeological Science 19, 1992. 6 A. Wheeler & A.K.G. Jones, Fishes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989. 7 K. Mannermaa, Birds in Finnish Prehistory. Fennoscandia archaeologica XX. 2003, 329; M. Nunez & J. Okkonen, Environmental Background for the Rise and Fall of Villages and Megastructures in North Ostrobothnia 40002000 cal BC. Dig it all. Papers dedicated to Ari Siiriinen. Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, Jyvskyl 1999, 105116; Milton Nunez, Role of food production in Stone Age Finland. Paul Fogelberg (ed.) Pohjan poluilla. Suomalaisten juuret nykytutkimuksen mukaan. Bidrag till knnedom av Finlands natur och folk 153. Helsinki 1999, 133141. 8 J. Ylimaunu, Itmeren hylkeenpyyntikulttuurit ja ihminen-hylje-suhde. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Helsinki 2000; Ukkonen 2004; S. Seitsonen, Osteological material from the Stone Age and Early Metal Period sites in Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia. Mika Lavento (ed.) Karelian Isthmus Stone Age Studies in 19982003. Iskos 16. Helsinki 2008, 265283. 9 R. Lee Lyman, Vertebrate taphonomy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994. 10 I. Thry-Parisot, Fuel Management (Bone and Wood) During the Lower Aurignacian in the Pataud Rock Shelter (Lower Palaeolithic, Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France). Contribution of Experimentation. Journal of Archaeological Science 29, 2002, 14151421; S. Schiegl, P. Goldberg, H. U. Pfretzschner & N. Conard, Paleolithic Burnt Bone Horizons from the Swabian Jura: Distinguishing between In Situ Fireplaces and Dumping Areas. Geoarchaeology: an international journal 18 (5). 2003, 541565; L. Niven, From carcass to cave: Large mammal exploitation during the Aurignacian at Vogelherd, Germany. Journal of Human Evolution 53. 2007, 362382. 11 J. F. Hoffecker, A prehistory of the north: human settlement of the higher latitudes. Rutgers University Press 2005; M. Glazewski, Experiments in Bone Burning. Oshkosh scholar 1. 2006, 1725. 12 Schiegl et al. 2003; Niven 2007. 13 For an overview Thry-Parisot 2001.

Prehistoric burned bone: use or refuse results of a bone combustion...

An experiment carried out by Thry-Parisot14 showed how bone can be used to increase the combustion time of fires. After conducting several experiments Glazewski15 came to the conclusion that bone could have been used as a fuel source especially in the Arctic. Fire can be started with grasses and fresh bones can be added once the fire is producing enough energy. A crucial aspect in this case would have been the drying of the bones of different species or of different body parts to make them more burnable.
Materials and methods

In this paper we will discuss the possible use of bone as fuel during Finnish prehistory based on bone combustion experiments and bone mineral density analysis. The combustion experiments were carried out to see if bone could have been used as fuel during prehistory and if there are inter-species differences in burning capacity. A potential factor explaining the interspecies differences in bone combustion and post-occupational preservation of burned bones is bone mineral density (BMD). High mineral content could reduce the amount of carbon based compounds in bone, slow down burning effects and improve preservation. We also had the assumption that bone mineral density can alternate during the burning process. To evaluate this hypothesis we measured the bone mineral density from non-burned and burned bone.
Bone combustion experiments

To conduct our bone combustion experiment we collected elk (Alces alces), bear (Ursus arctos) and grey seal (Phoca hispida) bones from respectively a hunting association, a meat factory and from local fishers. Beaver (Castor fiber), Forest Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) and harp seal (Halichoerus grypus) were not included in the combustion experiment because of non-availability. All bones were fresh and unbroken. For wood we used dried pine and birch wood from one and the same lot. We prepared seven experimental fires with different contents. One of the experimental fires was made to look at some particular characteristics of bone combustion and was not a part of the actual experiment. The other six fires had a different content but the same fuel volume, approximately 96 l, and size, measuring 500 mm by 500 mm. To study the effect of different bone/wood ratios on the
Thry-Parisot 2001. Glazewski 2006.

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S. Vaneeckhout J-A. Junno A-K. Puputti T. iks

temperature, we prepared three experimental fires with respectively a 75 % / 25 %, 50 % / 50 % and 25 % / 75 % wood/bone ratios. Interspecies differences were studied from three experimental fires with a 50 % / 50 % wood/bone ratio. The fires were started with birch bark and small pieces of wood. Then wood was added to get the fire burning, once enough heat was produced we added bones and wood in the same way as fuel. Pictures were taken at the same intervals as the temperature measurements were carried out. Notes were made about the nature of the bones and about interesting phenomena which occurred during the combustion experiment.
Bone Mineral Density analysis

To investigate possible interspecies differences in bone mineral density we performed density analysis. BMD measurements were taken from elk (n=4), reindeer (n=4), beaver (n=4), grey seal (n=4), harp seal (n=2) and bear (n=4) specimens. The samples were taken from cooked bones from an animal museum collection. Bone mineral density was measured using the Stratec pQCT (XCT960A; Norland/Stratec, Fort Atkinson Pforzheim, USA/Germany). The pQCT scan was performed to the 50 % point from the distal end of the tibia. Tibial length was measured by the distance between the most prominent point of the distal head of the intercondyloid eminence of the proximal head. The bone mineral densities of each pQCT scan were measured from three manually defined regions of interest (ROI) in the cortical bone area of the midshaft. The difference in bone mineral density between burned and fresh bone was evaluated by performing pQCT scans for various bone samples. These samples consisted of fresh and burned elk femora. Scans were performed to 50 % and 75 % points from the distal end of femur and to the narrowest point of the femoral neck. The aim of the measurements was to evaluate BMD in both cortical and trabecular bone in both fresh and burned bone.
Results Bone combustion

The graph in Figure 1 shows some remarkable differences in combustion properties of fires with a different wood/bone ratio. The fire with 75 % bone fuel has a very fluctuating temperature. The temperature of the 25 % bone fire is more stable than fires with more bones. Temperatures drop with every addition of bones as fuel. The

Prehistoric burned bone: use or refuse results of a bone combustion...


Ratio variation



Figure 1: Evolution of temperature over time for different bone/wood ratios.

Species variation



Figure 2: Evolution of temperature over time for different species.


S. Vaneeckhout J-A. Junno A-K. Puputti T. iks

fire with 50 % bone has a longer combustion time than the fire with 25 % bone. Temperatures are very similar for the 50 % and 25 % bone fires. The fire with 50 % bone fuel produced more light than the 25 % bone fire. The 75 % bone fire did not produce enough heat to burn the bones properly. So the addition of bone to fires increases combustion time and light production of fires, adding too much bone results in bad combustion. The interspecies differences in combustion properties are also remarkable. Elk and bear bones burn very similarly. Their respective curves show a similar temperature development throughout the combustion process (Figure 2). Seal bones burn worse than elk and bear bones. Temperatures drop with the addition of seal bones to the fire. The fluctuation in the temperature curves for bear and elk bones are due to the difference in combustion properties of different body parts. Rib bones and phalanges burn relatively fast and at a higher temperature compared to long bones and backbone. Long bones burn slower but at a more stable temperature for a longer time. There are also some remarkable differences in the combustion properties of wood and bone. First of all there is the fact that when all the organic material from bones is burned the mineral part of the bone cools down relatively fast, especially with free heat conduction. At the same time there is the interesting insulating property of bone. Once the bear bone fire finished burning, the bones were piled neatly. One hour after the combustion experiment we measured the temperature which was still over 400 C. The outer layer of bone was almost cold and could be touched without protection. A similar situation with the 25 % bone fire resulted in a much colder fireplace. Thus bone seems to be much better as an insulator than wood.
Bone Mineral Density

BMD analyses demonstrated that there is a slight difference between the fresh and burned samples. In fresh cortical bone samples BMD varied between 12501400 mg/ ccm and in burned cortical bone samples between 12001250 mg/ccm. Trabecular bone tests failed as burned trabecular bone was mostly too fragile for accurate density measurements. Clear interspecies differences were found in bone mineral densities. The lowest BMD value was found from bear bones (mean=1308,7 mg/ccm) and the highest value from reindeer bones (mean=1526 mg/ccm). BMD values for beaver, elk, grey seal and harp seal were somewhat intermediate between those two. In Figure 3, the most extreme values for each species are left out of the analysis. We can see how reindeer and grey seal are the species with the highest BMD values while bear has the lowest values. Beaver, elk and harp seal have intermediate values for BMD.

Prehistoric burned bone: use or refuse results of a bone combustion...


Figure 3: Distribution (mean and values) of Bone Mineral Density for different species. The numbers on the x-axis correspond with the numbers in the first column of Table 1.

Species(n) 1 2 3 4 5 6 Alces alces(4) Rangifer tarandus fennicus(4) Castor fiber(4) Phoca hispida(4) Halichoerus grypus(2) Ursus arctos(4)

Mean BMD mg/ ccm 1379 1507,3 1363,7 1461,3 1450,7 1308,7

Range (min-max) mg/ccm 1292,5-1461,9 1382,3-1589,6 1211,1-1474,6 1243,9-1595,6 1383,1-1530,7 1221,8-1373,5

Table 1: Bone Mineral Density (BMD): mean and value range for 6 different species.


S. Vaneeckhout J-A. Junno A-K. Puputti T. iks

Figure 4: Diaphyseal cross section for mammals discussed in text.

PQCT scans revealed that diaphyseal cross sections of beaver and seal species were clearly different from other samples. The medullary cavity was basically absent in most of those specimens (Figure 4).

Our conclusions on the combustion characteristics of bone are similar as those from Thry-Parisot16. Bone can be used in addition to wood as fuel because of its particular characteristics. Bone increases the combustion time of fires. Bone and wood fires burn with a slightly lower temperature but they burn for a longer time than wood fires. Too much bone results in a very unstable fireplace which does not produce enough heat to burn all the bone. Bone also produces more light than wood during its burning process. In prehistoric (northern) environments) bone could have been used as a light source in dwellings. It would haven been relatively safe as the heat produced is lower than with only wood as fuel. Bear and elk bones seem to be more useful as fuel than seal bones. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is the relatively high bone mineral density of seal bone and the almost absent medullary cavity in seal bone. Bear and elk bone contain

Thry-Parisot 2001

Prehistoric burned bone: use or refuse results of a bone combustion...


more fat than seal bone (bone marrow contains 80 % of fat) partly because seal stores fat under its skin while bear and elk store fat in the yellow bone marrow in long bones, etc. The mineral density is most likely also an important factor in postdepositional preservation of bone. It seems fair to assume that fish and bird bones have an even lower bone mineral density than mammals. Our experiments demonstrate that the difference in combustion characteristics and preservation of bones from different species have to be taken into account when prehistoric refuse faunas are studied. It would also be important also to take in account the subsistence related technology like at Yli-Ii, Purkajasuo17 and the natural environment of prehistoric sites. Seal bone burns worse than for instance elk and bear bones. Similarly there is a better preservation of seal bone. These characteristics will increase the ratio of seal bone in refuse fauna compared to elk, bear, fish and bird bones. A factor which intensifies the effect of different combustion and preservation properties of bone is marrow extracting. The relatively high amount of bone marrow in elk and bear (noticed from diaphyseal cross sections) will increase the probability that bones will be broken for marrow extraction. Our experiments revealed that broken bone burns considerably faster than unbroken bone.

Finnish prehistoric subsistence is often studied through the refuse fauna, which mainly consists of burned mammal bones. Most of these studies have provided us with the conclusion that during the Stone Age, subsistence strategy was based on large scale seal hunting. We performed a bone combustion experiment to evaluate whether the percentage of seal bones in prehistoric refuse faunas accurately represent the role of the seal in past subsistence economy. The results of these combustion experiments and further bone structural and densitometric analyses clearly demonstrate that the better preservation of seal bones probably considerably affects its representation in archaeological animal bone assemblages. According to our analyses there are clear differences between taxons in the burning and preservation capacities of the long bones. The fact that seal bone does not burn as good, and preserves better than bear and elk bones, might explain why we do find more burned seal bones from archaeological sites.
Language consultant: Andre Costopoulos


H.P. Schulz, Purkajasuon ja Purkajasuo/Korvalan kaivaukset. Unpublished excavation report at the topographical archive of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities, Helsinki 2000.