CROCKETT’S COUNTRY WAYS: How to build a fire of bones
Everybody loves a campfire, but did you know that burning bones is a great way to get a hotter, brighter fire? Not to mention the irresistible barbecue aroma, writes Jonny Crockett
Between 12,000 and 22,000 years ago, our ancestors were burning mammoth bones across central and Eastern Europe. The reason for this practice is still debated and no particular side is winning the academic to and fro. However, bones and fires have some weird properties.
As the nights are drawing in, but the temperatures still allow a little al fresco dining, a bonfire could be just what you need. When you’ve finished eating, the first few drinks have been and gone and you’re sitting around the fire with friends discussing not very much but in great detail, why not throw a few bones on the fire? The bones should be fresh (perhaps the result of a stalk you’ve just done, or even the bone from a joint of meat yet to be cooked). It doesn’t really matter which creature you’ve got the bones from, just don’t cook them first.
For this article, I’m going to use a cow femur from the local butcher’s (pic 1). I need to have the fire going first.
I’ve had a BBQ so I’ve been using charcoal. The charcoal was initially ignited using a small twig fire. As you know, charcoal takes a little time to get going. It slowly heats up but then stays hot for some considerable time. With a little oxygen it can get hot enough to melt iron. We don’t need it that hot, we just need it to get to around the magic temperature of 380ºC – this is the temperature at which bones start to burn.
Before adding the bones, you need to do a little preparation. It’s not difficult, you just need to smash the bones into smaller pieces. The poll of a splitting maul, the nearest mallet to hand or even a household hammer. One way or the other, just break it up (pic 2).
You’ll be able to see the marrow inside. If there are any decent sized and shaped pieces for other projects, such as making arrow heads or harpoons, keep them to one side (pic 3).
Now you can put the bones on the charcoal (pic 4). The grease oozes out from the porous bones and the marrow starts to melt. The smell is heavenly (assuming you like the smell of cooking bone and marrow) and the campfire starts to light up. It’s the luminosity that is so noticeable.
It’s worth noting that you can’t light a fire with bones, you have to light it with wood or charcoal first. From a dull orange of the charcoal embers with a Lux (brightness) reading average of 9 (pic 5), you can get a dramatic increase if you add wood (pics 6 and 7) and you suddenly get bathed in warm flames with a Lux reading of 67. That’s over seven times brighter than the charcoal. The wood I’ve added is approximately the same size and roughly the same shape and weight as the bones I’m going to burn.
Once the bones are burning away, the Lux reading leaps up to 239 (pics 8 to 10). That’s over 26 times as bright as charcoal and 3.5 times as bright as wood.
It would be a wonderful light to sit around and tell stories of the chase or the giant fish that got away. The more bones you’ve got to burn, the brighter they burn. However, if you let the temperature drop below 380ºC, the flames will just die away until you get the temperature back up again. The bones don’t burn to embers, they simply crumble to ash, or are left calcified and dried.
It seems strange, but have a go the next time you get the chance. Unlike our palaeolithic forefathers, try to stick to animal bones. The stories can be just as amazing though.