A French Prisoner of War Box – Answer to Freak of the Week #17

This is the first blog post from all three subject areas at the Ohio History Connection, and reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the mission of OHC.

By Dave Dyer, Natural History; Emily Lang, History; and Juli Six, Archaeology. 

As we were pulling objects for our upcoming new exhibit on endangered and extinct species, we came across this unusual box in the history collections. It appears to be made of ivory, and we thought it would be great to display it next to the African elephant tusk that we are borrowing for the exhibit. Even an old catalog entry referred to it as an ivory box. But then we became suspicious. The material that appears to be ivory seemed too thin. Ivory is from the tusks of large mammals such as elephant, walrus, and hippo, or from the teeth of whales, and thus ivory carvings usually have some thickness to them. These thin pieces of material just didn’t look like ivory.

As we examined the material more closely, we could see cross-sections of small spaces within the material. These were darkened and easier to see by years of dirt, stain, and maybe some remnants of organic tissue. Only one structure looks like this: bone! We usually think of bone as a rigid rock-like material but it is actually a living, changing tissue. Thus it needs a supply of blood and nerves. This is accomplished by a small series of canals that run through the dense cortical bone (photo). When bone is carved or cut these nutrient canals become very apparent.

Furthermore, if it was ivory from an elephant tusk – or even from a fossil species like mastodon or mammoth – it would have the characteristic Schreger lines. Ivory is basically made up of dentine, which is the bone-like tissue that makes up most of a tooth (or tusk). The dentine of these large tusks will always show the distinct Schreger lines (photo). These are described as cross-hatchings, and are even visible on carved and polished ivory.

Another clue came from the appearance of some of the tiles that are in the box. The tiles were painted to look like playing cards, but on the reverse side of a few of the tiles you can see a roughened texture.

This is from the inside, or marrow cavity, of the bone where it transitions from the dense compact bone to the spongy bone that is found at the ends of the long bones. If we compare to a photo of the inside of a cow femur (photo) you can see the similarities. If this cow femur was carved down and polished it would very much resemble the texture on the tile.

So now we were sure the box was made of carved bone. But when was the box made? Who made it? The set was purchased in 1966, intended to be used as a historic prop at one of Ohio History Connections sites. Not much history was known about the object at the time, so based on reference material H 26197 was cataloged as an ivory Mah-Jongg set from early 19th century France. As mentioned earlier, the box was pulled to look at since it was listed as ivory but it was obvious this set was more than what the catalog record indicated and off we went to find the story behind the box. Looking at the cards, it became clear this was not a Mah-Jongg set; it is some sort of early 19th century gaming set. We started with a basic search on google to see if anyone else had a box like this to understand what we were even looking at. We came across two auctions at Christies and Virtu with boxes in the same style and materials as ours. Both of these boxes were identified to be made by French prisoners of war in the early 19th century. What led to these boxes being made?

Dominoes and other playing games were brought to France from China in the 18th century. However, it wasnt until the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) that they were transported across the channel to England. The Napoleonic Wars lead to the imprisonment of thousands of French soldiers in England in prisons, houses, and on ships across the country. French POWs sometimes spent up to a decade in British prisons, so they began to look for ways to pass the time.

The prisoners that were held on British ships used available material such as whale bone to carve the gaming boxes. The prisoners languishing in POW camps on shore would sometimes build elaborate models of British ships. They used bones of cattle and sheep that they salvaged from their rations. They would boil the bones to clean them, then bleach the bones in the sun. One article claims that pigs roaming the POW camps would uncover human skeletons buried in shallow graves, and that the prisoners would use these bones in their ship models! We wondered if there was a possibility that any human bone was used in our box. One of the ways to assess the likelihood of bone material being human is by histological examination. Basically, different classes of creatures repair bone differently and often this can be measured visually in microscopic slices of the cortical bone. These methods are especially useful in forensic cases where DNA cannot be obtained because the bone is very degraded and in small pieces. Of course, we cannot use these methods on our carved bone box because that would require destructive testing (slicing into it).

So this box is probably made of cattle bone, since the longest bone pieces in the box are too long for sheep or pig, but we may never know for sure what else its composed of! But this all adds to the intrigue of this beautiful box, and makes us think twice about the history of objects in our collections.

Posted May 9, 2014

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