Creepy-Yet-Beautiful Ship Models Made of Human Bones by POWs

To pass the time, French prisoners held in British dungeons during the Napoleonic Wars would build intricate ship models from human and animal bones. Now these creepy works of art sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auctions.

While English prisoners of war spent their jail time playing sports, French POWs found a rather macabre hobby – building models of enemy ships out of bones. Although it’s recorded they were treated exceptionally well by the English, because the skirmishes between the two European forces dragged on for years some prisoners remained locked away for over a decade, so they needed something to pass the time. Prisoners would keep pig and mutton bones from the food rations issued to them by the English, boil them and bleach them in the sun. But sometimes materials from their meals weren’t enough for their detailed works of art, so they supplemented their supplies with human bones from the shallow graves around camp, uncovered by roving pigs. No one really cared where or from who the bones came from, as long as they helped finish the job.

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The imprisoned artists used the largest bones to carve the body of the ship, moving on to the smaller ones and pieces of wood to create the finely detailed cannons and masts. Apart from human, mutton and cattle bones, the Frenchmen also used tissue paper to create the sails and their own hair for the sail rigging. At one point, there was such a market for the bone ships that people in nearby villages would smuggle turtle shells, silk, metal foil and other materials for the artists to use. Although most of the POWs’ bone ships weren’t built to scale, the level of craftsmanship makes this fault easy to overlook. Some of the more advanced creations also contain fine mechanisms that allow the sails to be raised and retract the canons inside the ship.

Photo: Io9

Bone ships dating back to the Napoleonic Wars are very rare, and at auctions they can reach prizes into the tens of thousands of dollars. For example, in 2007, British auction house Bonhams sold a bone model of the HMS Victory for $55,000. But if you don’t want to spend this kind of cash on a macabre piece of history, you can visit the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland, which houses one of the largest collections of bone ships in the world.

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