A chicken isn’t just for eating…

A chicken isn’t just for eating…well, it is but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve had a few bone projects on the go since my last post and this time round I remembered to take some snaps!

I grew up with chickens, in actual fact they make rather good pets and follow you around the garden making wonderful noises, quite social birds. If you have a large garden then chickens may be the thing for you, if you have a smaller space bantams are just as nice, (bantam = smaller fowl). However if you have neighbours you might want to check the sex of your chickens before purchase as cockerels make a racket (and they don’t lay eggs).

The chickens I grew up with were ‘free range hens’, they had the run of the garden until they discovered Mum’s fruit canes and the veg patch…a run was made for them so they had plenty of space and they were safe from the local foxes too. The eggs from these hens were fantastic, nothing like you get in the supermarket, they were a rich deep yellow/orange and tasted amazing. These hens were kept specifically for egg laying only.

A couple of months ago my other half and I decided to get a chicken for eating from our local shop.

I washed out the chicken and cut the ties holding the legs together as the meat cooks better this way. I then cooked the chicken and made a nice roast dinner, I managed to pick all the meat from the carcass so that nothing was wasted.

Recently I’ve been working on assemblages with a lot of bird remains and after attending the recent PZG conference which had a session focusing on bird remains, I decided to start producing a bird reference collection. I already have a female blackbird on the go and I picked up a male woodpecker this weekend too.

As the carcass was still fully articulated I began by placing the whole thing in a bowl of warm water which I changed daily to remove the grease from cooking. After a week of this I began adding biological washing powder to the warm water, this helps to break down the proteins, ligaments and cartilage in the skeleton. I carried out this process for two weeks and began teasing the ligaments and cartilage away from the bones, some came away easily, others needed soaking for longer. This process is known as maceration which I’ve mentioned in my other posts before, however this experiment didn’t smell like all the others. My previous work with mammal maceration was an incredibly smelly and unpleasant process, the chicken project didn’t smell bad at all and I managed to keep it in the kitchen! My theory for this is that it was a carcass used for food consumption rather than a week old road kill carcass.

When changing the water for my chicken, I used a sieve to catch all of the small bones like phalanges, as these are easily missed and get washed down the plug hole. I’m sure I missed a few, but being my first bird experiment I’ll know for next time (I have 3 pheasants in the freezer).

The bones have come out quite clean, although a bit of grease remains, so I’ll wipe them down with hydrogen peroxide solution or make a paste of bicarb of soda to clean them up. I decided to thread the vertebrae as they were so delicate, I did manage to lose one as it turns out this chicken is quite young and the remains were very fragile. As this bird is quite young, not all the epiphysis are fused onto the shafts so it’s not a great reference skeleton next time I’ll have to get hold of a complete adult bird to get the best results.


9 thoughts on “A chicken isn’t just for eating…”

  1. Ah chickens make great pets! We selected five chickens from a local farmer but one turned out to be a cock- he certainly kept the neighbours up before we handed him back to the farmer! Keep up the great posts, thanks 🙂

    1. Yes, they are thank you, although ask me when my statistics report is finished and I’ll be ecstatic (bad pun)! After reading your post on maceration, I popped to the Sheffield market today to buy some animal bones (20p!). Mostly vertebrae from the brief look I’ve had. I’m planning to remove the remaining ligaments/tendons with a knife then boil them for a good few hours. Anything else I should do? Thanks, your blog is ace 🙂

      1. Hey, that’s good! Don’t get me started on statistics, I enjoyed the unit I studied but it did make my head hurt. Great to hear that my blog has had an impact and inspired you to give it a go too. Do you know what animal the bones you got were from? Most likely candidates are cow, pig or sheep. The process depends to a slight degree on the animal, as pigs have a high fat content and this can be absorbed back into the bone making them really greasey and smell. Mind you so can lamb and cow. Vertebrae are fun to process, however these are likely to be from a young animal and may not be fully fused. The body and arches should be fine, it’s the epiphyses of the vertebrae that may come loose, but these are quite easy to match up (like a jigsaw) to the bodies once you’ve processed the whole thing.

        You will need a few basic tools for this: an old saucepan and lid, a skewer, strong string/ribbon, an old bowl, an old toothbrush, bicarbonate of soda, biological washing powder, nail varnish remover, a dinner tray, small sharp knife, scissors and an old tea towel.

        Remove what ligaments you can with the knife and scissors. They are tough and pesky. With the skewer try poking out the material from the spinal column holes. Don’t break the vertebra apart as at this stage it may damage them. Then thread the string through the column to keep the bones in order, tie the string off to leave enough space to manouvre each piece. Then boil the bones in the saucepan with the lid on, keep it on a low heat but for several hours. I would do this when your housemates are out as the smell does linger, or at least don’t tell them exactly what it is…Change the water every hour as grease will build up. The bones will be hot and slimey so grab an old tea towel and rub them down on the tray to try and remove any loose excess material. Repeat this process for a few hours. Then put the bones in a bowl of warm water with biological washing powder, this will help to break down the proteins in the ligaments. The temperature needs to remain constant at approx 60 degrees to work best. It will work at lower temps but will take longer. I invested in a cheap tropical fish tank heater to keep the temp stable. I’m still guestimating with my quantities of washing powder so keep an eye on it. This will take a few days and may smell! Keep changing the water as grease will build up. When you do change the water try easing the ligaments and flesh away each time. Once you’re happy with it dry them and soak them in the nail varnish remover, get a cheap one that has acetone in. This acts as a degreaser. Afterwards there maybe stubborn pieces of cartilage and ligaments still attached, it’s not going to be perfect on your first attempt. I then make a paste using water and bicarb of soda and scrub this on the bones. You won’t get all the material off but don’t worry. The bones will have their own odour, but it’s not nasty. I store mine to allow them to ‘breathe’ in old finds bags but leave the bag open otherwise they’ll sweat and stink. Leave them to dry thoroughly for a few days away from heat and sunlight before storing them.

        I think I’ve covered everything…

        Let me know how it goes! Any questions feel free to ask. You’re blog posts are ace too 🙂

    2. Thank you! I shall invest in some equipment then. Yes, its making my head hurt just thinking about starting the report! I think it’s likely mostly bovine animals, and there is a segment of articulated vertebrae with intervertbral disks present from what I’ve seen. May have a partial axis vertebrae too, and the bones seem to come adult animals. It was sold as pet bones. I shall start the process some time this week I think, when I’ve got a spare couple of hours to start! Thank you for all the information; I knew the basics but wasn’t particularly clear on what exactly to do.

      Cheers, I hope my blog posts are not too all over! Just need to update the Leg entry…

      I do have a request actually; would you like to write a guest post on zooarchaeology for my blog? I’m happy to email you a brief if you had time to write an entry.

      Hope you are well.

      1. Glad I could help! If your bones are ‘fresh’ I’d advise putting them in the freezer so they keep until you are ready for them. Nothing worse than stinking parts of animal bodies. I have 3 feathered pheasants in the freezer at the moment waiting until I have time to sort them out.

        I would love to write a guest blog, do email me the brief and I’ll see if I can come up with something interesting. I have some projects on but I’d love to give it a go. Is there a way I can DM you my email address?

        Your blogs are informative and great to read, it’s also nice that they vary.

      2. Cheers, I think I shall.

        my email address is djmennearone at sheffield.ac.uk, just take out the ‘one ‘ and put ‘1’ instead, and then I’ll email a brief. I found I was getting a few spam emails from my blog entry about previous guest posts so I’ve changed the wording as above; seem to work so far!

  2. I just happened to findcome across your website and this write up A chicken isn’t just for eating… osteoarch. The info you have written down kind of makes me think. Thanks for the info.

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