When I chose this topic for today, I hadn’t realized the morbid or, perhaps, precisely appropriate nature of it. After all, on the day the Mayan’s supposedly predict the end of the world, why not talk about bones?
So for those of you willing to tolerate my morbid humor, proceed with me to a windowless, dim room in the bowels of an old college hall filled with boxes and trays of bones, mostly human.
As a holiday treat for my kids and me, my anthropologist brother and sister-in-law took us down to the osteology lab for some firsthand experience. Prior to this, any encounters I’d had with real bones were with pictures or came fried with juicy meat still attached. This was something else altogether.
First of all, the lab was little like I imagined. No clean white coats or obsessively sterile environment. Rather, it fit more into the concept of old stories and Dr. Frankenstein, down to the wired together arms and legs. Boxes, both cardboard and plastic, piled high about the room, shelves spread with bins and trays full of bones, cabinets, and, in the center, a large table bearing works in progress. Over it all, a slightly stale, musty scent with the occasional accent of rot.
Despite all this, the lab was far less creepy than I imagined. In fact, contrary to my expectations, the trip made me even more convinced that, had I not delved straight into writing, I could have been an anthropologist. There are so many fascinating details about bones and what they reveal of people, and I barely scratched the surface.
A lot of the lab contained human bones, boxes full of skulls, trays of arms and legs, but there were a number of animals too: cattle, deer, sheep, and even a fox. I’m sure, had we the time, my brother could have pulled out even more interesting specimens.
As a general rule, particularly for the bones not already heavily rotted, most were often quite smooth and pale. Apparently, bones darken upon exposure. They were also very light and often shockingly thin. What struck me most was how, in many ways, they were more like models I had seen than expected, but models rarely reveal so many fine details and eccentricities. Models rarely distinguish the unusual features that crop up, like a small extra bone in the skull, or the places where muscles attached. They certainly do not bear a fine white powder where fat deposits linger. Nor do models imitate the true weight of a cow’s pelvis, the heaviest bones I held, the finer details of fingers and toes, the delicateness of vertebrae, or the bullet holes.
There were so many impressive things, including a rib from more than 6,000 years ago. It would take many hours and a lot more education to truly appreciate it all. But for the writer, it was a taste of something new and useful. Now, I know the heft of a human skull, without the brain, of course, the look of bone grown dark brown from exposure, and the scent of partially rotted jaw.
Above all else, no matter how fascinating or strange, each and every bone, animal or human, came from the living. Each was someone’s son or daughter. Each had dreams, fears, sorrows, loves, and basically, a life. A sobering thought and one necessary to treat each with proper respect.
What interesting and special things like this have you gotten to experience through the generosity of friends, family, or acquaintances?