by Diane Harper
I belong to an experimental archaeology group that focuses on the early Middle Ages in Northern Europe. What does this have to do with fitness? Surprisingly, it is a great way to move our bodies and test our strength. When you work the blacksmith’s bellows for hours, or gather wood for cooking and chop it by hand, you work muscles in ways you never do at your office job. A friend and I have been working on some additional fitness-related experiments. She made a replica of a “backpack”, and I have been testing out theories on how bone skates were used.
Bone skates have been found in various places including the Viking site in York, England. They don’t have blades, so they don’t work like modern skates; rather, they were strapped onto the feet, probably with leather thongs, and the skaters may have used with poles to propel themselves along. We know this because there is a woodcut from 1555 showing skaters using a single pole. Last weekend, my friend and I headed to the nearby lake to test our our equipment. We had a lovely walk through the woods (leather-soled shoes can be quite chilly), and at the lake I strapped on my skates and “skated” up and down a section of cleared ice. The motion that I find most efficient is very similar to classic cross-country skiing. I have two wooden poles tipped with pointy pieces of pig bone. They give me a little bit of grip on the ice to improve my forward momentum, but they definitely aren’t as good as proper ski poles with a metal point.
The advantage of the bone skates is that some snow or slush doesn’t hinder progress as much as it does for modern skates. The disadvantage is that I am rarely able to get a good glide; mostly I just shuffle along. This is largely an equipment problem. My skates are still rough on the bottom, even through they are becoming smoother with repeated use. I need to smooth them more, and may even try waxing them to reduce the friction. Still, I stay nice and warm, and I get to look fabulous in a dress and fur-trimmed hat. Wool may take longer to dry than modern microfibres, but it stays warm even when wet. Even my feet were warm on the skates, because the bone kept them up off the ice. We were out for almost two hours on a cold, blustery day.
Diane Harper loves to experiment with historical cooking and crafts.