Moore and Students Explore Bone China as a Craft Material

By Farrah Bradley | April 3, 2017

Merging resources and research skills across the sciences and arts, Gregg Moore, associate professor of ceramics, is working with two apprentices from the Minor in Arts Entrepreneurship and Curatorial Studies, as well as Tobias Landberg, assistant professor of Biology, and biology students completing thesis projects, on his research entitled “Effects of Farming Practices and Animal Husbandry on the Material Properties of Bone China.” The central questions of this project include: Is a bone china bowl made from factory farmed bones different than one made from traditionally raised animals? What does it mean to serve food in a bone china bowl made from the bones of the animals being served?

Ceramic materials are almost exclusively derived from inorganic sources, but bone china is unique in that it is composed, in large part, of material that was once living tissue. This research team hopes to understand the ecological and domestic factors that transform bone china quality through their effect on bone growth and development. By understanding the physical qualities of different bones, they hope to understand how this variation effects bone china quality. This scientific and aesthetic inquiry will help understand bone china as a craft material that expresses our agricultural practices and values.

Through their apprenticeship work, student apprentices Rachel M. Geisinger ’18 and Abigail Grace Stevens ’18 are learning bone china production and testing methods. They are using both art studios and science labs at Arcadia, including the ceramics glaze lab and kilns, and the analytical chemistry lab with the atomic analyzer. The specific intended implementation involves bovine femurs, which are a readily available byproduct of the beef industry. The team will purchase fresh bovine femurs from at least sixteen industrial sources and sixteen traditional (organic, pastured, hormone- and drug-free) farms. Each sample will be calcined in an oxidation kiln at 1100 °C to rid specimens of all free water and organic matter. The resulting bone ash will be sampled for atomic analysis and processed into bone china. Calcium and phosphorus will be the primary constituents and analyzed first. Trace minerals—sodium, chloride, sulfur, zinc, copper, manganese, iron, lead, iodine, selenium—will be assessed in order by their abundance. The team expects that factory farmed beef bone will contain an altered calcium to phosphorus ratio and perhaps have fewer trace minerals. Bone china material will be measured for shrinkage rate, deformation in firing, translucency, whiteness, hardness, and density. Ceramic quality testing methods include checking for glass formation and firing deformation, measuring linear dimensions before and after drying and firing, and assessing translucency with light meters, whiteness against color standards, hardness using scratch tests, and density using water displacement methods.

Moore and Landberg were recently awarded a $10,000 Materials-Based Research Grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in support of this research to be carried out over the next two years. The length of the project, exceeding a single academic semester, will present the student apprentices, now in their sophomore year, the unique opportunity of working on a long-term project. Ultimately, their work will culminate in publication and exhibition. They plan to disseminate their results through popular articles in magazines such as Gastronomica, Gourmet, and Food & Wine, as well as scholarly academic art journals such as Ceramic Review and Ceramics in America, and academic science journals such as the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Journal of Biological Chemistry, and Advanced Functional Materials. They also plan to show their work in gallery and museum exhibitions.