Bone skates have been documented in the archaeological evidence from Northern Europe from the pre-Roman through early modern times, including many finds from the Viking age in Scandinavia and other parts of the Norse world.
These skates are actually used more like skis. They reduce the friction between the user's feet and the ice, and allow the skater to propel him or herself along using a pole with a spike on the end.
Making the Equipment:
The techniques needed to make bone skates are basic. The leg bones from a cow, horse, or other large animal are smoothed on the top and bottom, and the toe of the skate is often curved or pointed. I purchased a pair of cow's leg bones from the local pet food shop (one of my usual sources for carving materials). Shaping the skates was easily done with a hatchet.
There are a variety of different ways of attaching the skates to the feet, for this experiment I used leather thongs tied through horizontal holes at the toe and heel of the skate. In the interests of expediency I used an electric drill to make these holes, but I know from experience that a hand drill with a period spoon-bit would have worked also.
For the pole, I used a 6' length of maple sapling that I had cut down this summer, and hammered a hand-wrought spike into the end. The spike was made of unhardened mild steel. I filed the spike to a sharp point, put a 6' leather thong through the holes on each skate, and was ready to hit the ice. Not, I hoped, literally.
The process of shaping the skates, drilling the holes, and preparing the pole took a little over an hour. Even using a hand drill it would have taken less than 1 1/2 hours.
The First Trial, 2008 Feb 03
Rideau Canal, Ottawa
My first attempt at skating was a limited success, which I have chosen to blame on the ice conditions. The temperature was about +1 Celsius, so the ice surface was soft and generated quite a lot of friction. As a result, the skates did not slide easily along the surface of the ice. The binding method did keep the skates firmly attached to my feet, the pole worked, and I did not fall down, so I'm planning a second trial when the temperature is lower and the ice harder.
The Second Trial, 2008 Feb 16
Rideau Canal, Ottawa
The ice conditions were much better for the second attempt. The air temperature was about -15 Celsius, so the ice was hard. The ice surface varied, in some places it was rough and bumpy, in others it was worn by the passage of people on steel-bladed skates, and there were some sections where it was perfectly smooth. The skates slid reasonably well on the rough and worn areas of the ice, and felt alarmingly frictionless on the smooth patches.
On rough ice, I found that pushing myself along with the pole to one side, while shuffling my feet a bit, was the most effective way of skating. It felt a bit like cross-country skiing with one pole, and allowed me to stay upright while the skates cleared the bumps on the surface of the ice. The rough ice did not allow the long glides needed to use the centre poling technique, at least not with my arm strength.
I was not able to experiment properly with the centre poling technique on smooth ice, so I am saving that for another time. The canal was getting pretty crowded with families out skating by that point, and since you can't really steer or stop on bone skates I thought it best to exercise a little caution on their behalf.
The ice needs to be hard for bone skates to slide at all, and the smoothness of the ice surface makes a significant difference. Further trials are needed to establish the maximum temperature for effective ice conditions.
The upswept toe on many of the bone skates in the archaeological record is needed to deal with rough ice, but not needed on a perfectly smooth surface. This indicates that the skates were intended to deal with bumps and cracks in the ice surface.
For this experimenter, pushing with the pole to one side worked best on the rough ice and was slightly faster than walking on the same surface. Further trials are needed to test the differences between smooth and rough ice, and also the effects of light snow cover on the ice.
Auðr adds the following comments from her own experiments earlier:
My recollection is that, even in colder weather, the sliding properties of the skates were not what I would have expected. They might get better as the skates wear in the direction of the glide - that did seem to be starting a bit with mine, but I didn't keep skating to verify improvements. Perhaps another problem was lack of upper body strength to pole myself along. I have the same problem cross-country skiing, where I know I should be getting more propulsion from my ski poles, but just get too tired to do more than place them in the snow sometimes.
Overall, my assessment of bone skates is that they might be an improvement over walking all the way around a lake, but they aren't much of an improvement for someone who is reasonably sure-footed on ice, but with feeble shoulders and arms. To test this hypothesis more thoroughly, I would need to try walking on the canal in bog shoes (or any other flat leather shoe without treads) instead of winter boots, and I would need to do a lot more manual labour around the farm. I suspect the equation might change significantly under those conditions.
As a final thought, poling "side-saddle" may also be more tiring than centre-poling. It does put very different strains on ones' back. However, it is the only reasonable way to pole while wearing a dress. It would be interesting to dig through all the available evidence to see whether we can find hints that women traveled on skates, or simply stayed at home and left such trips to the men-folk.
Third Trial, Rideau Canal, February 2009.
The purpose of this experiment was to try using two spiked poles instead of one. In the interests of expediency I just sharpened the metal tips on my cross-country skiing poles.
It was about -10, so the ice was hard. There were rough patches and some large cracks, but most of the ice surface was in fairly good shape other than some scratching from the modern skates. A friend skated along beside and gave useful suggestions, it helped to have a spotter / coach.
Learned a number of things from this experiment with Viking-period bone skates: