Ice skates

Ice skates made from bone are common archaeological finds. One of the better known examples is the pair found at Birka which probably date from the 9th century. A sketch of one skate in the pair is shown to the left.

The bones were tied to the bottom of the shoes using leather thongs. The holes for the thong are in the sides of the skates at the front and back. The front of the skate (to the left in the sketch) has been shaped into a wedge to help the skate to pass over irregularities on the surface of the ice.

Typically, the metatarsal bones of horses or cattle were used. In people, the five metatarsal bones are the foot bones. In horses, which essentially walk on their toes, only the third metatarsal bone develops fully, resulting in a long, rugged bone.

Another well known example of a bone ice skate was found in York and probably dates from the 10th century. Unlike the Birka example, the rear thong appears to have been held in place by a wooden peg at the rear of the bone, and there does not appear to be any hole for a front thong.

Both of these examples were included in the North Atlantic Saga exhibit that toured North America during 2000-2001. One surprising aspect of the skates is that they’re very short, only about 20cm (8 inches).

The replica skates I made started out being like the Birka skates. Later, I added the wooden peg in the rear and looped the rear thong through that, like the York skates.

One aspect of skate construction that I did not appreciate until after the first use was the need to make the bottom of the skates as slippery as possible. That means making the bone very smooth and very flat. And it means applying a smooth coating of wax. I used modern tools to apply a coat of beeswax.

waxing the skates
metatarsals compared
I used bones from cattle because they were easier to obtain. However, in a side-by-side comparison, the superiority of the horse bones is clear. (In the photo, the cattle bones are on the left, and the horse bones on the right.) The horse’s metatarsal is longer, straighter, and flatter, and so it would require much less shaping. Next time I make skates, I’ll use bones from horses.

tying on the skates
It would seem obvious how to tie the skates to the feet: loop the front thong over the top of the foot, and the rear thong over the ankle. That’s how the skates were displayed in the exhibit. And that’s how Magnus Magnusson is using them in the photograph in his 1980 book The Vikings!.

skates capsize
That’s the approach I used at the first Hurstwic event where we tried to skate.

But that approach failed dismally. The skates slipped off within a few steps. I couldn’t even get from the bank of the pond onto the ice before one or the other or both of the skates slipped off. The skates slip fore-aft, and there’s nothing that holds them in place to prevent that motion.

I couldn’t understand the difficulty. This lacing method worked for Magnus. And it worked for me when I tried the skates before the event.

skates with modern boots
Then I realized that I was wearing modern boots when I first tried the skates on the pond behind my house. With this simple lacing, they stayed on pretty securely.

And that’s what Magnus appears to be doing; he appears to be wearing modern boots in the photo.

The traction of the modern sole against the bone skate appears to be more than sufficient to keep the skate in place using this simple lacing technique. However, the smooth leather sole of a period turnsole shoe doesn’t have what it takes to keep the skate from slipping to and fro and eventually falling off.

I tried some more complicated lacing techniques. I ran a thong between the front loop and the rear loop in an attempt snug things up enough to keep the skate on. That was an improvement, but not good enough.

Frans van Liere ice skate sketch
Several years after writing this article, I received a note from Frans van Liere who, with his students at Calvin College, made and used bone ice skates. He sent the sketch shown to the left and reported:

We simply used one leather shoe-lace per skate, and strapped those around our feet in an 8-shaped loop. In other words: through the front hole, diagonally over your shoe, through the back hole, and tie the two ends diagonally over your shoe again. An extra loop around the ankle then finished the binding. Thick socks in leather slippers actually provided more stability than modern shoes. This was the way many farmers in my home-country Friesland rode their Friesian skates: socks strapped to the wooden frame.
I tried that approach using period turnshoes. It didn’t work for me; the skates slipped off after just a few steps every time.

skate with complex thong arrangement
I tried a few other approaches. The simplest approach that really seemed to keep the skates solidly on the feet is shown to the left. The rear thong goes over the top of the foot, then back behind the leg, then around front again and is tied. The front thong crosses over the top of the foot, above the ball of the foot, then loops around the ankle and is tied.

This was the simplest approach I tried that worked. I’m not yet satisfied, though. This seems very complicated for what ought to be an easy job.