How to Clean a Bison Skull

1846 Fort, Interesting Objects

Warning: this blog post contains graphic images of animal processing. 

This past season, a few of our interpreters got to try their hand at a rather unique historical experience “ cleaning a bison skull!

In 1846 there were millions of Bison roaming the Canadian prairies, and they were a staple food for aboriginals and fur traders alike. At Fort Edmonton, butchering bison would be a regular process as the Fort exported bison animal-graphics-bison-516779products, such as pemmican, to other trading posts further from the prairies.

While we often cook with bison meat at the 1846 Fort, this summer, thanks to a donation from a local butcher, Buffalo Valley, we were given a full bison head “ fur and all! Working with it gave us the invaluable opportunity to talk to visitors about the importance of the bison to the fur trade and the daily life of the Scottish, Canadien, and Métis inhabitants of the post. In preserving the skull we are also creating a tool to interpret the disappearance and near extinction of the bison through the 1870s.

So this is what we did:

Step 1: Using knives, clean as much fur, meat, and organs as possible from the head:

 

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Remove the eyes!

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And the jaw:

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Step 2: Soak in water overnight. This helps soften up the brains.

 

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Step 3: Using a wire hook, scramble the brains, then rinse them out by flushing with water. (sorry no pics!)

Step 4: Soak in cold water for a few weeks. This is the smelliest option for cleaning a skull, but it also doesn’t damage the bones the way boiling it would. Bacteria builds up in the water to eventually eat away the remaining flesh & cartilage.   We did this outside for a little while, but it quickly became obvious that we would have to hide this out of visitor reach, as the smell was overwhelming!  A few days before completion, be sure to add an enzyme based laundry detergent to the skull to help de-grease it.

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Step 6:  Bleaching: It took about a month for the skull to come clean, at which point it had developed a particularly pungent odor.  With all of the flesh was removed, it was time to bleach the skull to stop the smell.  Normal bleach would damage the skull, but hydrogen peroxide (used for hair bleaching) works wonders – and makes lots of bubbles.  We found it useful to scour the head with brushes to make sure that the whole thing was bleached.

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As the outer sheath of the horns slid off, we discovered there was still some flesh to be removed:  Yuck!

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Step 7: Let it dry then (if desired) glue the horns back on.

Complete! This skull is now ready to head to a new home on 1885 street, where interpreters will use it to talk about the disappearance of the bison, bone-harvesting, and the impact that tragedy had on the people of Edmonton. Look for it and other new additions this summer at the tipi camp on ’85!