Is this a Food and Drink,, Media and Arts, or Pets and Animals Question?
August 12, 2007 2:56 AM   Subscribe

I got a lamb skull from the supermarket (complete with meat) and I'm looking for the best way to remove all the non-bone parts and then preserve the bone for an art project.

I was recently given a lamb's head as a gift and am playnnng on using the skull for an art project. First I have to get all the meat/tissue off of it (which I assume can be done via boiling, but someone please correct me if that's not the best way to get it ready if I need to preserve the skull).

Once I have the bone left, I want to break it up, and then use the fragments for an art project. Once I smash it, what is the best way to preserve the bone? Some type of spray or treatment? I would prefer to have it look as natural as possible, however I end up treating it, but having it not smell or decompose in any way is the highest priority.
posted by andoatnp to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The University of Arizona has published a document called "Cleaning and Preserving Animal Skulls" [pdf], which suggests that boiling, lightly bleaching, and then lacquering is the best way to go.
posted by robcorr at 3:02 AM on August 12, 2007

Best answer: I've watched 'Bones' enough to know that you boil skulls!

And annecdotally from time on the farm, I'd say that being left in the sub for ages certainly hardens them up. Start with boiling and drying and then see how you go from there I guess.

Maybe boil and then bake for a few hours in a medium oven.
posted by sycophant at 3:11 AM on August 12, 2007

two words: time + ants.

scavengers are the best way to clean bones.
posted by Infernarl at 3:21 AM on August 12, 2007

If the meat is still relatively fresh, no flies have attacked it (I hope you have it in a fridge before it starts to decompose), ask a local college, university, or museum if they have Dermastid beetles. Believe me this will make your life significantly easier - they will clean up everything.

If you get the beetles, keep the beetles and the skull in a container (like a glass container) - I was told by a person who gave me beetles before that they can eat other things in your house so you don't want them to get free.

Anyway, with the beetles and the skull - you put cotton over the skull and around it and let the beetles go (I think a larvael form eats the meat, don't know the part of the lifespan, doesn't matter, they will eat the meat). In the end you will have a completely clean bone - everything will be gone.

If you can't get beetles, this will make your life more difficult. I have boiled skulls before and then you will have to pick off pieces of meat (think this through, even the brain through a small area in the back of the skull). I can never clean it up that well via this route. I've also put the skull into hydrocholoric acid. This made the skull cleaner (absolutely clean) but don't make the concentration too high or then it will start to eat away at the skull and it may not look like bone (although it will be white, very white).

You are going to smash it? If you can, try to get to an anatomy lab where they have parts of a skull - the skull is actually several bones fused together. It would be nice to have idea of these shapes because rather than smashing it, perhaps you can try to remove parts so that you can preserve the original form or a few of the original forms. If you can't get to an anatomy lab, I have no doubt you can google and find images of the parts (sphenoid, ethmoid occipital, etc.).

I've thought about doing art with my skulls but at this point, no ideas spring to mind. To me they are more beautiful intact.

If possible, can we get an update and see a picture of the skull as a piece of art? Now I'm curious. Have fun.
posted by Wolfster at 3:26 AM on August 12, 2007

Up here in the Outer Hebrides we'd make a soup out of it. The cheeks are particularly tasty!

But boiling it will leave you with a yellow, fat stained skull.

Best bet would be maceration.
posted by brautigan at 3:59 AM on August 12, 2007

My father cleaned a deer skull once by the ant method. He just left it outside, I believe on a rock, with a metal bin upended on top of it to keep larger animals out.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:55 AM on August 12, 2007

TheOnlyCoolTim got it. My sister was a biology teacher, any animal found dead (if she thought the skull/bones would be useful in teaching) was taken out into the woods with a metal milk crate. The skull was placed on the ground (damp, dark areas are best, more bugs) the crate over the top and enough big rocks heaped on it to keep it from being pillaged by small mammals and such and dragged off.

Takes a while but works just fine.
posted by HuronBob at 6:20 AM on August 12, 2007

Boil it. Chuck in some pepper corns, onions... the meat will come off and you'll have a nice hearty stock. (Or would that be a nice heady stock?)
posted by popcassady at 7:06 AM on August 12, 2007

I have cleaned conch shells and the like by finding a big ant hill and setting it down right on top. In a few days its picked clean. cooltims's idea of a bucket on top sounds like a good idea too.
posted by cubby at 7:28 AM on August 12, 2007

I know a bison rancher who simply attaches the bison skulls to a post outside. The scavangers clean off the meat and the sun bleaches the skulls white.
posted by Ostara at 7:46 AM on August 12, 2007

Season 3, Episode 18 of Dirty Jobs highlighted skull cleaners and all the details of their work.
posted by glibhamdreck at 7:52 AM on August 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

What a coincidence! I was just talking yesterday with a woman who makes jewelry out of bones. Check out her site. Apparently, her method involves soaking the bone in water for about six months, and then soaking in hydrogen peroxide. Send her an E-mail and I'm sure she'll give you some pointers.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2007

Crock pot with seasonings. Pull skull out after 8 hours or so , and get a yummy soup to boot.

You can have your cake and eat the ewe!
posted by sourwookie at 9:03 AM on August 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, in the lab, we digest tissue samples using an enzyme called proteinase K. Leaves nothing but hair and bones and takes a couple of hours at most. Not sure if ordinary civvies can obtain it without a hassle, but it's pretty effective.
posted by greatgefilte at 10:40 AM on August 12, 2007

Adding my vote to letting the bugs have it. Hell, boil it, then let the bugs at it. That way you can have the soup option and still avoid trying to winkle meat out of the brain pan.
posted by Jilder at 11:06 AM on August 12, 2007

If you want to avoid having the skull smell up the area, leaving it in the open air is a bad idea. Instead, you should bury it and come back a year or so later. I knew a science teacher who would bury entire dead bears, cougars and other large mammals, and after a year they'd be completely skeletonized.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2007

What would happen if you put that in somebody's shampoo bottle? What about their waterbottle?
posted by tehloki at 4:54 PM on August 12, 2007

tehloki, I was actually thinking it might make for a nice exfoliating experience if you put it in the bath. But yeah, I don't recommend ingesting or touching it...
posted by greatgefilte at 5:38 PM on August 12, 2007

Exfoliating? Wouldn't it just strip the flesh from your bones?

A sarcovoric experience? Sarcophagic?
posted by tehloki at 7:53 PM on August 12, 2007

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