rattus norvegicus

A few weeks ago, I was walking home from a neighborhood street festival, when I happened upon this animal skull on the ground. It was already decomposed, leaving nothing but the bare bone skull completely intact. The skull was found in front of an abandoned apartment building with a known rat colony living inside. Examination of the skull, revealing the telltale talon-like teeth confirmed my suspicions that the skull once belonged to a common city rat. I was overcome with a sense of revulsion of disgust. Immediately, I knew what I needed to do. I took the skull home, intent on the purpose of fashioning it into an article of jewelry.What follows is the steps I took in this process.

Rats carry diseases, so my first priority was sanitation. When handling the skull, I did so only with gloves or by using these tongs shown above. I set water in a pan to boil, then placed the skull in the boiling water for about 12 minutes. The boiling water adequately killed off any germs that might have been remaining on the skull.

After the rat skull was sufficiently cleaned and sanitized, it was time to begin the bleaching process. There are a couple schools of thought with regards to taxidermic bleaching - most maintain that a soluble acidic solution, such as a 20% hydrogen peroxide solute, was the favorable way to go. I chose to use a pure household bleach solution, though I'd read that pure bleach can render the bone brittle and prone to breakage. Rats, after all, caused the Black Plague and subsequent epidemics, so before placing it on my body I wanted to ensure its utmost sanitation. I chose the stronger method of the two.

I poured about 3 capfuls of pure bleach into a container of water and allowed the skull to soak overnight. Whatever nasty microbes may have survived the boiling water bath surely met their end in the bleach. Oddly enough, the boiling water bath turned the two front teeth a strange orange color...and I am still unsure why this occurred. The red teeth also did not turn white after the bleach bath, and makes the skull just that much more macabre.

I let the rat skull bake in the sunlight to complete the bleaching process. Once it was adequately dry enough, I strung it onto a brass chain. Using a pure bleach solution did cause the bone to become very brittle. A few teeth and pieces broke off in the bleach, and more broke off in post-processing handling. When wearing the necklace, I have to pay very careful attention to the skull to ensure that it doesn't break even further. I'd still rather deal with a very delicate piece of jewelry over the possibility of dangerous microbes surviving on its surface. Perhaps I will apply a layer of clear coat varnish to the skull, to strengthen it. I haven't decided yet - I do rather like the matte bone texture.

Wearing this rat skull challenges my notion of what is typically considered to be a filthy creature. Rats are a dirty nuisance in Chicago, but I have rendered this rat into a harmless necklace. I receive many reactions when I wear this necklace - fascination, disgust, incredulity, appreciation. Most people are unsettled to discover that this skull belonged to a city rat. Their hands recoil instantly from the charm until I explain that it was sufficiently sanitized. Any piece of art - whether it be a painting, a photograph, or functional art such as fashion - has the power to inspire emotion in people. This necklace certainly inspires such feelings. I'm not saying this necklace is Art With a Capital A, but I do believe in the power of symbolism. It has been an experience in learning to separate the rat's history as a harbinger of death from it's current benign state as my necklace.

Edit: Apologies if this post was uncessarily pretentious.


The Animal Orchestra said...

AWESOME. And I love that it broke a little - it looks even better with the pieces missing.

meagan said...

thanks, i like the fact that it's chipped a bit too. i should still clear-coat it, though...

Mat said...

loved this post, you have done a really really good job. and now i know how to do it if i ever need/want to. i would say i fall into the appreciation category.

the matte finish does look good, esp against your skin. i've seen stuff like it before but not homemade ones so much. we don't have many rats where i live, a few bats.

when i lived in london i lived around the corner from a taxidermy shop called "sew fantastic"

meg // morningmidnight said...

this is completely disgusting and completely awesome. i'm thoroughly impressed!

filthy g said...

wow, this is really amazing! i really enjoyed this post. thank you for sharing.

nikol said...

wow. thats pretty bold, but brilliant!