What Did Medieval Russians Do for Fun? Ice Skating – on Bones

Just in time for the Beijing Olympics: Analysis of horse bones from ancient Novgorod shows not one but two types of ice skates, neither, possibly, for any useful purpose

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Type I bone skates with different types of mounting holes
Type I bone skates with different types of mounting holesCredit: Oleg Oleynikov

As the first flakes of snow cover the land, and as the lakes and rivers freeze, Russians from rug-rats to full-grown go outside to enjoy their favorite winter pastime: ice skating. They have done so for generations, and now a new study shows how they made their skates during the Middle Ages in ancient Novgorod: from the bones of household animals such as sheep and horses, which thusly continued to serve for transportation after death.

Moreover, however, while skating was a key mode of travel throughout much of ancient far-northern Eurasia, in medieval Russia skating was done for fun, an archaeologist suggests.

In a new article published in the journal of Russian Archaeology, Oleg Oleynikov from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences describes his study of animal bones unearthed at the site of Veliky Novgorod. He concluded that certain long bones had to have been used as ice skates.

Using animal bones for skates was done in other northern European and Scandinavian countries and now, his research shows that this tradition had reached the eastern territories and was popular among the Old Russians in Velikiy Novgorod.

13th century leather boot and 12th century shoe with skate from NovgorodCredit: Oleg Oleynikov

Founded by a Viking

The city’s story begins somewhere around 860 C.E., according to medieval Russian chronicles written from the 11th century onward. They mention Velikiy Novgorod as a major station on an important trade route, known as the "Varangian to the Greek route", which connected the Scandinavian trading centers with the Byzantine empire.

The Greek Road crossed the Baltics, ran along the rivers of modern-day western Russia, reached Velikiy Novgorod, and from there continued south along the Dnieper, through the territories of the Kyivan Rus, and extending to the Black Sea and the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire.

According to the primary chronicle written in the 12th century, Velikiy Novgorod was founded by Rurik of Ladoga, a Varangian chieftain of the Rus. He was invited to rule the area and later became the father of the Rurik dynasty that ruled Kyivan Rus.

Rurik on the Monument "Millennium of Russia" in Veliky NovgorodCredit: Dar Veter, Wikimedia Commons

Rurik the Varangian was a "Viking". The term Viking was a term used by the Anglo-Saxons that meant pirates; and was given to the sailors and raiders coming from Scandinavia, conquering, settling, and exploring other countries. They were also known as the Northmen, Danes, the Varangian, or the Rus.

They were expert navigators and sailors, sailing the rivers on their longships, called Drakkar, which were considered their major technological achievement and the key to their success

The Byzantines and the Slavs called them the Varangian and some also served the emperor as mercenaries, known as "The Varangian guard".

They were also known as "the Rus", which most probably meant rowers, and the consensus is that they arrived from Sweden. They established the Kievan Rus state in the 9th century, a coalition of East Slavic, Finnish and Baltic tribes with whom the people from Sweden have merged and assimilated.

Olaus Magnus 1549: See skaters in the center-right of this close-upCredit: ללא קרדיט

Kievan Rus encompasses the areas of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and west Russia, which derived their name from the Rus.

Archaeological excavations at Novgorod do reveal a medieval presence at the site, but only a century later than suggested by the chronicles. However, written sources from the west and other archaeological finds indicate there might have been an earlier settlement in the area right next door, known as Rurikovo Gorodische. This site is known from Norse sagas as the settlement of Holmgard, and it lies just 2 kilometers south of Veliky Novgorod. It is possible that over time, Holmgard and Velikiy Novgorod merged in the historical memory.

In any case, come the Middle Ages, Novgorod had become the second most important city within Kievan Rus. It later established the medieval Russian state, the Novgorod Republic, encompassing lands from the Gulf of Finland to the Ural mountains. Here culture and literature thrived, giving birth to such manuscripts as the Novgorod first chronicle, one of Old Russia's ancient texts.

"Type II" bone skates, made for gliding, and "blanks"Credit: Oleg Oleynikov

The city retained its importance throughout the history of Russia. It is considered to be the cradle of modern Russia and has attained world heritage status, protected by UNESCO.

For over 80 years, extensive excavations conducted in Novgorod have been unearthing amazing finds from the medieval city, such as the famous birch bark manuscripts written in the Ancient Novgorod dialect, the Novgorod codex; as well as residential, administrative, and religious buildings, shedding light on the daily life of the Novgorodians.

The current expedition also revealed a plethora of finds. But for now, let us concentrate on a specific find: bones used by the Novgorodians to craft skates.

Traces of processing and natural smoothing of surfaces of bone skatesCredit: Oleg Oleynikov

When the horse passes on

In his latest study, Oleg Oleynikov examined a collection of tubular bones from large household animals whose remains were found in archaeological layers from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Based on experimental archaeological, ethnography, and comparison with similar objects found in neighboring northern countries, he concluded they had been used as skates.

The medieval bone skates were moderate-sized skids, made from horse and large cattle front and hinged metapodials, cut in their epiphyseal ends, with the plantar side of the shaft smoothed out to serve as the sliding surface of the skate. The ends were sometimes tapered to create a raised nasal part, helping the skate slide better on the icy surface.

In fact bone skates seem to have been used throughout ancient far-northern Eurasia. The earliest scientific find in Russia of these artifacts was made a century ago, at medieval Old Ladoga, another key port city in Old Russia along the route to Greece, as of the 8th and 9th centuries, predating even Novgorod. (The skates were found in layers from the 10th and 11th century however.)

Medieval bone skates on display at the Museum of LondonCredit: Steven G. Johnson

About 190 km northeast of Novgorod, Ladoga was the first city to be ruled by Rurik before he moved to Novgorod.

Bone skates have also been found in places such as York in England, Birka in Sweden, various sites in central Europe, Iceland, Ukraine, and even Kazahstan and the Black Sea, some of which go back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Yet the first mention of “bone skates” was in a 12th-century C.E. manuscript written by an English monk named William Fitzstephen.

In his biography of Thomas Becket, aka Saint Thomas of Canterbury, “The Life of St. Thomas,” Fitzstephen provides a colorful description of the City of London in the 12th century. There he describes bone skating as one of the local pastimes.

"Furthermore let us consider also the sports of the city, since it is not meet that a city should only be useful and sober, unless it also be pleasant and merry," Fitzstephen wrote. "When the great marsh that washes the Northern walls of the city is frozen, dense throngs of youths go forth to disport themselves upon the Ice. Some gathering speed by a run, glide along, with feet set well apart, over a vast space of Ice." Some fashioned seats out of ice and were dragged along, he added: "Sometimes they slip owing to the greatness of their speed and fall, every one of them • upon their faces.”

Fitzstephen goes on to describe the skilled ones who “who fit to their feet the shin-bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with iron-shod poles in their hands they strike ever and anon against the Ice and are borne along swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from mangonel.”

And kids will be kids – they would play a medieval version of ice chicken, skating at speed to one another with the object of hitting one another with poles. Yes, injuries would ensue. “Often he that falls breaks arm or shin, if he fall upon it. But youth is an age greedy of renown, yearning for victory, and exercises itself in mimic battles that it may bear itself more boldly in true combats,” Fitzstephen concludes (from Gourde L.T. 1943, An Annotated Translation of the Life of St. Thomas Becket by William Fitzstephen).

Whee!

Excavation in Novgorod from 2008 to 2019 yielded over 50 such skates. Most were made from horse metapodials. The length of the skates varied between 17 to 39 cm, dominated by skids between 21 to 30 cm in length.

It can be assumed that the smaller skids, 17-20 cm, were used by kids, whereas the bigger ones by adults, as Oleynikov noted.

Making the skates was a simple task: even a child could do it, and didn’t require any special tools.

The Skater, by Rembrandt: Note his propulsion poleCredit: Rosenwald Collection, Wikimedia Commons

However, some may have been made by professional skate artisans, although no such workshops were found in Novgorod. In Scandinavia, where skates were used more widely, one such workshop was found in Norway.

There were two types of bone skates. One had holes on the epiphysial part to tie the skate to the shoes using laces binding to the toes and heels. The second type had no holes, suggesting they were used in a different manner.

Unlike their modern counterparts skaters, the medieval skaters would push themselves using one or two poles with pointed tips. Their speed would be affected by arm strength and the skating surface.

Here you can see how Rosalin, a medieval reenactor from the Netherlands, is skating with the bone skates, called Glissen in Dutch, using two poles.

Rosalin reenacting how ice skates made of bone were usedCredit: YouTube

She also tried gliding with one pole but found it trickier and not as easy as the two. She noted how the icy surface affected the gliding experience.

Given that they were harder to use, Oleynikov suggests that skates unattached to the shoe may have been used like a scooter, with one leg pushing the glider and the other placed on the bone.

Or, Oleynikov says, they may have been used by towing, with the skater holding onto a rope and pulled by someone else.

Closeup of demon skating bird, from triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1450 –1516Credit: National Museum of Ancient Art, Wikimedia Commons

Medieval manuscripts and art provide us with a further understanding of their use and popularity. Such as the works of the Swedish historian and geographer Magnus Olaus from the 16th century, the Skater by Rembrant from c. 1639, and a depiction of a demon bird with skates on an icy lake in the left panel from the work of Hieronymus Bosch, the temptation of St. Anthony from 1500.

Clearly skates were an important means of transportation for hunters and fishermen in other parts of Europe, unlike in Russia, where they were apparently used mainly for fun.

This may have to do with the Russian climate. In winter, because of the rapid onset of snow and its quick build-up, ice surfaces suitable for skating are available only for short periods. Skating is simply not a useful form of transportation in Russia. But it can be loads of fun.

The upshot is that today Russia is a skating superpower, though not on horse bones any more. The world is watching the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, where Russia has high hopes for its superstars. On Sunday, 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva finished first in the women’s short program segment, delivering a stunning performance and landing a triple axel.

Valieva subsequently allegedly tested positive for a banned substance, according to news reports, the ramifications of which presently remain unclear but the Russian teams are forging on and, the women especially, are expected to do magnificently well.

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