OSB archive
OSB archive

Yule blog: ancient ice skating

Pete Wilton

A helping of seasonal science in which Oxford's Federico Formenti tells me about research into the origins of ice skating:

OxSciBlog: How were ice skates invented/what were they used for?
Federico Formenti: Archaeological evidence shows that ice skates have been used for at least 4000 years. Where skates were invented and why is still a matter of debate in the field of archaeology. The most ancient ice skates are found across a vast area of Europe (from Germany to North Scandinavia) and some argue that they were made for fun. I think that 4000 years ago, in countries where there were long freezing winters and only a few hours of light per day (and neither supermarkets nor cars!), people would have used these few hours of light to get food and any other items necessary for their survival, rather than to have fun.

My doctoral research suggests that they were invented in the South of Finland, where the number of lakes per square mile is the highest in the world. In this environment humans were forced to find a way to cross lakes (so as to avoid having to walk around them).

On average, compared to walking, travelling with ice skates between two locations offered a much greater gain in Finland - in terms of time and energy required for the journey - than anywhere else in the world. This led me to suggest that they were invented in order to save the time and energy required for necessary journeys.

OSB: What materials do we think they used to make them?
FF: The most ancient ice skates were made of animal bones, mostly horse and cattle. This varies quite a lot, depending on the animals which were present in the area where the skates were made. Apparently, the size of the bone skate matched the size of the skater's feet (kids had shorter bone skates).

Bone skates did not have a blade so the movement pattern of 'ice skating' looked rather different from modern ice skating technique: propulsion came from the upper limbs pushing a stick on the ice between the legs whereas the lower limbs, being kept almost straight, provided balance. The first wooden skates with a metal blade were made 'only' in the 13th Century AD, when people skated using their lower limbs as a means of propulsion; since our lower limbs are more powerful than our upper limbs, we could than skate at higher speeds (similar to running) for a limited effort, and making turns became easier.

OSB: How well did these early skates work?
FF: Measured speed on bone skates was similar to walking on firm terrain for a similar effort, although this was measured on a track with curves, so it's possible this was underestimated. Going on a straight line on bone skates is very easy (and relatively fast), but making turns requires slow speeds (because they do not have a blade).

Federico Formenti is based at Oxford's Department of Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics where his current research is in studying how the human body responds to low oxygen.