When you first visit jonsbones.com, you might notice that we only sell “medical osteology.” What does this mean? Why is medical osteology any different than just plain old osteology?
Osteology is defined as the study of bones. When we at JonsBones use the term osteology, we are referring to bones as a category of item.
In the human bone industry, we acknowledge a few different types of osteology. There is archaeological/ossuary osteology, tribal osteology, and medical osteology.
Archaeological/ossuary osteology refers to bones that were at any time part of a burial ritual. While these rituals may differ across cultures and regions, bones that come from these sites are not inherently spiritual. These bones might demonstrate evidence of having been buried such as dirt or oxidization stains. Bones like these might come from places like catacombs, or be discovered during excavation. Bones that are removed from these sites and sold are relatively common, but we do not sell them.
Another category of osteology is tribal osteology. These bones have spiritual or religious uses. These bones were typically acquired for spiritual practices. They are usually ornately decorated or carved. In the past, the collection of this type of osteology was common amongst colonial and imperialist forces, which often drove their creation, such as the shrunken head market. Examples of tribal osteology include Dayak, Asmat, and Kampala skulls. These bones do not serve as medical teaching tools, and we do not sell them.
Medical osteology refers to bones that are specifically prepared for the education of medical students. Most of our collection at JonsBones can be dated from 1900-1985, when the bone export business was legal in India. Most medical osteology was sourced from India, China, and Russia, but some specimens were prepared elsewhere. These bones were never part of an ossuary or archaeological site. Prior to the introduction of a legalized bone market, there was no standardized international bone trade, while medical schools still required bones to teach students. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this led to the creation of a working-class group of people called “Resurrectionists.” These people would take recently deceased bodies, and sell them to medical institutions for dissection. Eventually, the public took issue with this practice, after infamous murderers Burke and Hare were exposed for killing people, and selling their bodies specifically for anatomy lessons. This led to much legislation regarding the procuring of bodies for dissection in the United Kingdom, and eventually led to the creation of businesses surrounding the supply of human remains for medical study. Since plastic was not readily available until the Space Age, and we are still developing suitable plastics to accurately depict bone, plastic models were not a feasible solution. Given that India was the largest exporter of osteology, when the export of bones was made illegal in India in 1985, this ceased the majority of all new medical osteology sales. Russia and China tried to fill the gap in the market, but ultimately the craftsmanship was not up to par with the Indian preparations. Universities did not care for these lower-quality preparations, and the trade did not fully recover. China illegalized the bone trade in 2008, and this was one of the biggest final blows to the supply of new bones to the market. This left the remaining bone supply to become a resale market. This is where our business comes in. We buy these decommissioned and unwanted bones, and try to put them back into the educational sphere.
When determining if a bone was part of the medical trade, you must look for distinguishing factors. Oftentimes this is evident by how they are prepared. Medical osteology is often distinguishable based on the hardware present such as jaw springs, clasps, and other pieces of metalwork that keep the bone in place when not being studied. It can also be evidenced by cuts made to demonstrate the inner structures of the bones, such as a calvarium cut on the skull. Sometimes you can tell by the way a bone has been cleaned. Sometimes medical osteology is labelled, either by the preparator or by a student trying to learn what they are looking at.
But where does medical osteology come from? How do we learn more about its origins? Those are really interesting questions that I have dedicated my life to finding answers for.
Bones that were part of the medical osteology trade are anonymous. This was purposeful, to protect the identities of the individual the bones belonged to, and to make sure that students could learn from these pieces. A person’s identity is not medically relevant to the information that could be determined from their skeleton, and might even hinder learning. We have covered this issue previously. While we can have forensic anthropologists determine the age, biological sex, and ancestry of skulls, we cannot do much more than that in discovering the identities of these individuals at this point in time. Dental records were scarce during the period these were first sold, and the cleaning processes these bones underwent make DNA identification impossible. Even determining the region these bones came from is not currently possible, beyond a basic identification of their ancestry (African, European, Asian, etc.). These are limitations that modern anthropologists and scientists research currently. Until advancements are made in these fields, this is the knowledge we have.
We at JonsBones believe that preserving these pieces is the best possible option at the moment. The medical bone trade existed, and is now for the most part dead. Because the supply of human bones dwindled, most medical osteology companies have pivoted to providing medical models or animal osteology. These medical bones, once purchased by doctors and others, now take up unwanted space in the homes of their relatives. Asking relatives to take on the expensive task of disposing of these remains is unreasonable. Cremation of bones alone is both expensive, and energy-intensive, more so than cremating flesh. Unregulated burial is illegal, and can lead to legal issues down the line. So what can we do? We can keep these bones from being dumped and destroyed, and we can use them to educate and inform. We at JonsBones do our best to treat these bones as the precious resource that they are.