This past Tuesday I found myself renting a car and driving out of the city to Pennsylvania. A client had reached out to me after discovering a human skeleton in their new home. While I have written about the process of collecting from clients before, this particular skeleton has a deeply interesting history.
When my client first moved into his new home, all boxes from the previous owner had been removed, save one. In the lone tattered box was a full skeleton of a five-foot-three-inch tall individual. My client, having no previous osteological experience, was understandably shocked.
He had purchased the house from a former film director and prop master. Working under the assumption that this skeleton had been purchased for prop in a film, the client did some further investigation. This practice of using real human osteology for film was common at the time, given the relatively inexpensive cost of real human bones versus plastic recreations in earlier decades. This practice is evidenced in movies such as Poltergeist. In the box with the skeleton were newspapers dating from 1984. He decided he wanted to make sure the skeleton re-entered the educational space and got in touch with me.
I was particularly excited by this skeleton due to the primary source evidence it was packed with. In my work with osteology, I strive to understand the unwritten history of the bone trade, and sources of information like contemporary newspapers, company and museum catalogs, and original receipts provide more context to each piece. With the newspaper clippings from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated Sunday, March 11, 1984, this puts the skeleton’s origin to around 1984 or a few years before. Because the newspaper was packed by the original owner, not the articulator, it does not provide an exact date, but an approximation of its origin. Before the large-scale use of bubble wrap, newspaper was common and cheap packing material. Nowadays bubble wrap is a more effective packing material for bones, so finding a newspaper with a skeleton can provide a lot of insight into the history of the piece.
Other interesting details about this skeleton can be found in its articulation. As evidenced by the glue and unique stainless steel hardware used, this piece was most likely articulated by the Carolina Biological Supply Company. They use a very distinct kind of adhesive, and the structure of their joint hardware is unique to their work. With these clues from the hardware as well as the newspaper clippings, this proves the skeleton can be dated to just before India’s ban on the export of human osteology in 1985. This makes it probably the most recent skeleton in our collection.
Furthermore, besides a few chipped teeth, this skeleton is in pristine condition. It includes a hyoid bone and an intact coccyx. It is going to be an excellent educational tool, after its long rest in an abandoned box in Pennsylvania.
Not all the skeletons and skulls that come into my collection come from the estates of doctors and dentists. There are many unique paths that require the use of human osteology, and it is my privilege and joy to make these pieces accessible to everyone. If you find yourself in a similar predicament (skeletons in the closet, anyone?) please feel free to contact me so we can find your bones a new home.