Preserving a skeleton: Part 1

Less than 10% of the animal kingdom are vertebrates – meaning they have a backbone/skeleton. So, why is it important to preserve the skeleton if only a small portion of the animal kingdom actually have it?

The vertebrate population is made up of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish which comes to a total of around 65,000 species, containing most of the largest species on land and sea. Their skeletons provide information on evolutionary change, movement across landscapes and species settlement patterns, environmental evidence, age and sex, diet and how the individual died. All of these factors help us piece together the past and understand how our world has changed.

The work to conserve a skeleton is usually undertaken in labs based at museums and universities, as well as in the field on archaeological dig sites after the specimens have been taken out of the ground.

Picture1

As part of my project working at the Cole Museum of Zoology, at the University of Reading, I was given the task of preserving this horse skeleton and packing it away for long term storage, this is Little Texas. To find out more about where he got his name from check out my first blog ‘Guest Blog’ here. I will use him as an example whilst explaining the preservation process. I took this photo at the beginning of the project before I started any preservation work on the specimen.

Whilst wearing gloves, Little Texas was dismantled by unscrewing the bolts piece by piece after being articulated on the metal frame for roughly 100 years (which lead to a build-up of a thick dust layer covering the bones).

Depending on the specimen and the condition of the bone material, the cleaning processes may vary, for example, an eroding, half broken bone will be more of a challenge to clean than a complete, unbroken bone.

Picture2

This is a close up of the ribs and sternum on Little Texas. As you can see, they are in bad condition and have by far been the hardest part of the skeleton to clean. The part connecting the ribs to the sternum is cartilage, which is not often preserved with the skeleton because it erodes at a faster rate.

Firstly, using the air blower, the top layer of dust was blown off. Next, a cotton tip was dipped in a 10% sodium bicarbonate solution to clean off the remaining dirt (without soaking the bones). This is a non-intrusive surface cleaning method used to get dirt and dust off the bone without damaging the specimen.

It is important to use blue-roll to dry the area of bone once clean to reduce the amount of liquid seeping into the bones. This technique is for lighter surface dirt, for tougher dirt such as lippage seepage, a solution of Acetone could be used.

Less than 10% of the animal kingdom are vertebrates – meaning they have a backbone/skeleton. So, why is it important to preserve the skeleton if only a small portion of the animal kingdom actually have it?

The vertebrate population is made up of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish which comes to a total of around 65,000 species, containing most of the largest species on land and sea. Their skeletons provide information on evolutionary change, movement across landscapes and species settlement patterns, environmental evidence, age and sex, diet and how the individual died. All of these factors help us piece together the past and understand how our world has changed.

The work to conserve a skeleton is usually undertaken in labs based at museums and universities, as well as in the field on archaeological dig sites after the specimens have been taken out of the ground.

Picture1

As part of my project working at the Cole Museum of Zoology, at the University of Reading, I was given the task of preserving this horse skeleton and packing it away for long term storage, this is Little Texas. To find out more about where he got his name from check out my first blog ‘Guest Blog’ here. I will use him as an example whilst explaining the preservation process. I took this photo at the beginning of the project before I started any preservation work on the specimen.

Whilst wearing gloves, Little Texas was dismantled by unscrewing the bolts piece by piece after being articulated on the metal frame for roughly 100 years (which lead to a build-up of a thick dust layer covering the bones).

Depending on the specimen and the condition of the bone material, the cleaning processes may vary, for example, an eroding, half broken bone will be more of a challenge to clean than a complete, unbroken bone.

Picture2

This is a close up of the ribs and sternum on Little Texas. As you can see, they are in bad condition and have by far been the hardest part of the skeleton to clean. The part connecting the ribs to the sternum is cartilage, which is not often preserved with the skeleton because it erodes at a faster rate.

Firstly, using the air blower, the top layer of dust was blown off. Next, a cotton tip was dipped in a 10% sodium bicarbonate solution to clean off the remaining dirt (without soaking the bones). This is a non-intrusive surface cleaning method used to get dirt and dust off the bone without damaging the specimen.

It is important to use blue-roll to dry the area of bone once clean to reduce the amount of liquid seeping into the bones. This technique is for lighter surface dirt, for tougher dirt such as lippage seepage, a solution of Acetone could be used.

                                                  

These two photos show before the cleaning process (left) and after the cleaning process (right) of the pelvis from Little Texas. This stage of preservation only removed the thick surface dirt and the stubborn dust that was stuck to the cracks on both sides of the pelvis. Any attempt to further remove the dirt imbedded in either the centre or ends of the bone would result in damage to the bone.

To continue learning about the preservation process of a skeleton check out Part 2 of this blog!

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