What Happens When You Win the Carcass Lottery?

The lid to my maceration bucket.

You end up with the neighborhood dogs sniffing around your maceration bucket each morning. Weighing it down with a sledgehammer was a good idea, after all.

Before I get into all the gory details, though, this post would not have been possible without the following people: Ms. Graveyard Dirt and Sarah Lawless, for their inspiring and detailed descriptions of working with bones; and Seillean of Howling at the Crossroads, who was kind enough to share his own experiences and give me that little extra bolst of courage to try this.

But to begin at the beginning, on September 4th, I won the carcass lottery.

See, it all started because a friend of mine was holding a pig roast—she’s one of those crazy chefs who likes to try everything once. She and her partner had been wanting to try spitting a whole pig for quite some time. Naturally, two people are not going to be able to get rid of an entire pig (one definition of eternity is “two people and a ham,” after all), so they invited a bunch of us over to help out with that oh-so-onerous task.

Just as I was leaving, I asked my friend what she was planning to do with the pig head. She said that she had no idea and asked if I wanted it. I jumped at the chance, since I had spent a goodly portion of the afternoon trying to figure out how to get my hands on it. So per partner double-bagged it for me and I hauled it home. I mean, how often are you going to be gifted with a pig head that came from a community feast?

Preparation

I wasn’t able to work on the thing until September 8th, but it kept in the fridge since it had already been cooked. I decided to try boiling the flesh a bit further in 20 minute increments to loosen it up so that I would be less likely to nick the bone by carving it off. I was really thankful that it didn’t stink up the house since I don’t have an outdoor burner—actually, it smelled rather good. Must have been all that garlic my friend stuffed it with while I was roasting.

Most of the butchering went without a hitch. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a bit squeamish about getting the brains out—this was my first carcass after all. But as it tuned out, the brains weren’t so bad.

The eyeballs? Those were bad. And peeling off the roof of the mouth. Yeah, that got to me.

Anyway, I de-fleshed the piggy as best I could. I must say, it was a big advantage having a chiropractor in the house to help out with the preliminary butchering. I was having trouble getting the skull apart from the spine, but my sweetie gave me a very helpful anatomical description, and I was able to separate the atlas from the occiput with little trouble, and only some minor damage to the occipital condile (or at least that’s what I’m told it’s called). This made it much easier to fit in the maceration bucket as well.

There’s a certain intimacy that you have with the meat and bones as you begin to separate them. I did discover that it was a fairly young animal, as its last set of molars was just coming in. (This brought more than a few tears to my eyes as I though about my own son’s molars beginning to poke through his gums.) I actually learned a ton about anatomy from carving the pig apart, and now I looking at other animals and imagine the muscular structure underneath the skin. It’s an interesting perspective, but kinda weird.

Speaking of weird, I drew dancing skeletons on the maceration bucket (a good sturdy one from Lowes). Yeah, I’m a dork. And I desperately wanted to give some levity to a critter that had such a short life—I wanted something that would make me smile as I tended to him. I wrapped the skull in cheesecloth to keep any teeth that fell out, and sang to him as I placed both head and neck into the water.

The Maceration Process

Honestly, I really found this to be fascinating. Again, it wasn’t nearly as smelly as I expected—more like a really bad case of halitosis than anything else (although I do have some, shall we say, olfactory issues as well). But I was being pretty conscientious about replacing the water every few days, and it wasn’t high summer, so those two factors may have had a bit of an impact on the odor.

A month of pouring out rotten water passed, yet there was still a good bit of flesh on the bones. In fact, the spine was still intact. After a bit more research, I figured out that it was probably getting too cold at night for the bacteria to continue their work. The vertebrae finally separated October 20th, but I ended up leaving everything in the bucket until November 1st. In addition to this being a significant time to work with bones, we’ve also been getting down into the 30’s at night, and I wasn’t sure what effect being in freezing water would have. As I didn’t have a place indoors in which to continue macerating, I decided to dump everything and see what I could do by hand.

Unfortunately, there were still some stubborn bits of flesh hanging on. This meant I had to scrape the last of the cartilage off the vertebral bones by hand; happily, the skull was in really good shape. A good rinse removed the last of the brain matter and the remains of the septum. The bones themselves were mottled red and grey, so I really wasn’t sure how white I would be able to get things.

Bleaching the Bones

I submerged everything in a clean bucket with hydrogen peroxide (dollar stores are awesome for getting large quantities of this). I ended up leaving it until the 3rd because I was away on business, but it didn’t seem to hurt anything. The peroxide actually helped loosen some of the last of the gunk that I had missed. Everything looks even better than I had hoped—brilliant, shining white. Even the delicate, curling cartilage formations in the nose were preserved. Some of the vertebrae split, probably because this was a young piggy, but they should be pretty easy to piece back together. All that remains is to glue the loose teeth back in place, and it will be ready for reddening.

Wait, You Did What?

So why did I decide to so this? Part of the reason is that I’ve always wanted to try cold water maceration. Just chalk it up to being an archaeology major (or too many episodes of Bones, take your pick). Part of the reason is because it’s the closest thing I’ll probably find to a boar skull for my stang, and it carries extra “juice” because it came from a communal meal. But I also did this because on some level I was repulsed and afraid to work with the bones. I was worried that I might throw up, or that I wouldn’t be able to finish the job. So it was a challenge to myself, to prove that I can deal with the dead, even through it’s far from being my strongest talent. Some of the hardest work still lies ahead, but I think I’ve set a good foundation for my continued relationship with these bones.

—A.V.

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5 thoughts on “What Happens When You Win the Carcass Lottery?

  1. This is very exciting. I have always wanted to work with bones, but I have never had the chance. Maybe once I am done being a college student, I will have the opportunity. I am very jealous of your adventure

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    • I wanted to do this sort of thing back in college, too, but the opportunity didn’t present itself until now (7 years later). Gods know my freshman roommate wouldn’t have appreciated the finer points of maceration—especially if it was going on in my closet!

      But I’m glad for the wait, honestly, since I wasn’t always sure that this was work that I was really being called to do (and truthfully, I doubt I’ll be doing more than one or two projects). So yeah, finding that opportunity can be frustrating, but it’s really amazing when it finally happens.

      —A.V.

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  2. I just sent a link to this blog to Matt so he can see about prepping the deer head I just gave him.

    My bro has gotten three deer so far this season, I have two hides going through two different tanning processes with a third to join them and Matt hopes to use the jaw bones for knife handles.

    Have I missed a pic of your swine skull, or have you not posted it yet?

    In Frith,

    -UlfBjorn

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    • I actually just took pictures of the skull two days ago, so a follow-up post should be coming up soon. 🙂

      Tell Matt that unless he has a warm indoor space (or heater setup) that he doesn’t mind getting a bit stinky (tight-fitting lid is a MUST), he may want to wait until spring to do this. Maceration works best above 65 degrees F, and optimally around 95, if I remember correctly. I actually had to stop mine earlier than I would have liked because it was getting too cold at night for the bacteria to keep partying.

      And I’m not above doing some shameless begging for bones either, if you luck into another deer head!

      —A.V.

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