Bone Skate

Found during an excavacation of one of Maastricht’s main squares Our Dear Lady, this is one of two bone skates owned by the Centre Ceramique. While today figure skating is a popular winter pastime, as well as a renowned Olympic sport, when this item was used over thousands of years ago, it was not for leisure.

3D model of the Bone Skate

Nearly 3000 years ago, when ice skating first originated in Northern Europe, it was used for more efficient transport in winter. During the colder months not a large amonth of daylight could be enjoyed. People wanted to traverse fast and cover as much possible distance during the day, and gliding along frozen rivers proved to be faster than trudging in the snow (Burns, 2017).

This object belongs to the following theme:



Place of Origin
Maastricht, The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
1300 – 1400 CE

Animal bone

Dimensions (cm)
Length: 28, Width: 7, Height: 4

3D Model

Canon EOS 250D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Jinbo Pan & Daria Stoyanova

From bone to steel: the history of the ice skate

With its’ length, this bone skate is just shorter than an A4 notebook and its’ cylindrical main body is about the thickness of a deodorant bottle. Its surface is off-white, with a yellow, almost brown hue. Examining it, one can truly feel the age accumulated within this object, which is thousands of years old. It’s visible in numerous marks on its’ surface that testify to its long usage. 

During the Middle Ages, someone here in Maastricht took this piece of animal bone and fashioned it into means of transport. They used a material readily available to them, a dead cow or horse, whose body was repurposed into much more than this ice skate. Making it usable would have depended on several key steps. First, the backside of the bone was leveled wholly flat to provide a smooth gliding surface and ensure stability. After that, holes were drilled at both of its ends and then a leather string was pushed through them to attach the bone to the user’s foot. A lot of the time these leather strings would also come from the same animal as the bone itself (Burns, 2017).

On ice for the first time: skating or skiing? 

This bone skate is a representation of the rich history of figure skating as it was the first type of ice skate invented. The Finnish are thought to be the pioneers of gliding over frozen water, as they began doing so in 3000 BCE. This was related to the local environment, as areas like Finland are frozen over for longer periods of time and experience less daylight. Thus, it’s natural that people invented bone skates, as they needed to cross the ice as fast as possible given the short days. There are several reasons why animal bones from cattle or horses were used. It was not only readily available material, but the oily fat produced by the bones created a natural wax, which acted like a lubricant and helped to reduce friction (Burns, 2017). 

Medieval ice skaters would usually attach these skates on top of the shoes they were already wearing, which were typically just animal skin fashioned to cover their feet. Moving forward on them though could be challenging. Thus, users needed to utilize one or two sticks for propulsion (Blauw, 2001). In that sense, early medieval ice skating bears some resemblance to cross-country skiing. 

Gliding on ice with medieval ice-skates (Silk and Iron, 2022)

Some of the oldest archeological bone skate remains have been found in Scandinavian countries, but this activity has mainly developed here in the Netherlands. It was the central mode of transport during the winter months for centuries. Scandinavian and Dutch climates, which are both prone to both heavier and milder snowfalls also support the development of both ice skating and cross-country skiing in these two countries. The reasons for ice skating were practical, and related to things such as improved movement. For example, bone skates would have been used while pulling sleds that were transporting goods or for fishing during harsher conditions, when doing it from the shore proved impossible (Formenti and Minetti, 2007). They were an invaluable part of daily life and improved living conditions in countries that experienced colder weather. 

To skate like the Dutch 

In the Netherlands, bone skates, or glises as the Dutch call them, have been found from the Iron Age (800-50 BCE) and most date to the period 800 – 1200 although they are known to occur until deep into the 18th century (Braakman, 2006). In fact, the largest amount of bone skate remains are found here (Thurber, 2020). The bone skates found in the Netherlands can be distinguished as horse or bovine bones, and occasionally red deer bones are found (e.g. Amsterdam). Among the horse and bovine bones used in the Netherlands as bone skates are three types of bones: the metatarsus, the metacarpus, and the radius, while only once was a rib (costa) used (Blauw, 2001). 

When talking about ice skating, one can not talk about the Dutch. In the first millennium, the Netherlands’ population consisted of spread-out semi-nomadic communities. In order to trade with each other in winter, especially under poor weather conditions, they utilized the frozen-over canals. For them, it was easier to glide along the smooth water surface than to try to move through the snow (Blauw, 2001). As early as the 13th century, they could maintain communication between villages by skating for miles from one settlement to the other along frozen rivers and canals (Formenti and Minetti, 2007). By the 15th century, it was the most common way to traverse the country during the winter. According to Federico Formenti, a scholar from King’s College London who has focused on the evolution of ice skates, during that time ice skates were as popular as cars are in America today. It was also why the Dutch had the stimulus to try and improve this transportation method as much as possible (Poppick, 2018). 

Bone skates had a smooth bottom until the Dutch added edges in the 13th century. In the 14th century, bone skates became 30% lighter as they began to have metal blades fixed to the bottom (Alvarez, 2015). The use of these blades allowed for skating on one foot at a time, by utilizing either the inside or the outside edge of the blade. This technique is known as “the Dutch roll”. For the people of the Netherlands, speed and distance were important when it came to skating, due to the fact they skated over canals and the transport origin of this activity (Kestnbaum and Litman, 2020).

Lidwina’s fall on the ice (Otgier, Dutch, 1498)

The importance ice skating held to the Dutch can be illustrated through the different artistic depictions of this activity. One of the most famous stories centering around it is that of Lidwina of Schiedam (1380-1433), the Dutch saint who after a fall on the ice, endured a life of suffering (Alvarez, 2015). Moreover, in Dutch art pieces scenes of gliding along the ice on skates are a common sight, with one of the most iconic paintings probably being Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters” (1608).

previous arrowprevious arrow
Winter landscape with ice skaters (Avercamp, Dutch)
A winter landscape with skaters and kolf players on a frozen river (Neer, Dutch)
Winter landscape with skaters and horse-drawn sledges on the ice, a village below (Vermeulen, Dutch)
next arrownext arrow

Skating through time: from necessity to leisure to an Olympic sport 

Around the 12th century, bone skates were introduced to London and their identity evolved from a survival tool to a leisure activity. The use of bone skates for ice play also emerged in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands (Burns, 2017). This is the period when bone skates began to be commercialized. They were made as a commodity for recreation and then produced in different forms according to consumer demand in an iterative process. The new phase of context reflects the economic development and leisure culture of the society at the time.

It was not until the 15th century that iron skates became popular leading bone skates to gradually come to the end of their lives (Colm, 2016). 3 centuries later as people in Britain gained more time for leisure activities, the technical discipline of figure skating developed. The first official figure skating club was formed around that time in Scotland. Figure skating, the way we know it today, as a combination of spins, jumps and artistic movements were developed by an American, Jackson Heines, in the 19th century. It officially entered the Olympic Games in 1908 and is now enjoyed by millions, both professionally and for leisure (Klein, 2022). 

Skating as transport, leisure and an Olympic sport (from left to right)

Written by Daria Stoyanova & Jinbo Pan