Tag Archives: mystery object

Identification – cattle hock bone

Photo of the calcaneus.

Cattle right-side calcaneus (heel bone)

The calcaneus in humans is the heel bone, and is the first point of contact with the floor when we walk. However, cattle are ‘nail-walkers’ – walking on the very tips of their toes with the rest of the foot held off the ground. This means the first joint from the ground on the hind leg is the ankle (hock), not the knee, which is why it bends in the opposite direction to our knee. The knee is further up the leg, almost hidden by the leg muscles, while the hip is very high up, just below the base of the tail.

Diagrom to show position of hock in cattle leg

The hock bone (calcaneus) is shown by no. 32 (bottom right). 31 shows the ankle joint and 30 shows the knuckles of the toes. 27 shows the knee joint (bottom middle). Image credit: reference 1.

The bovine foot has 15 bones, grouped into 7 tarsals (talus, calcaneus, and five others), 2 metatarsals (running from the tarsals to thethe two toes). These correspond to the 3rd and 4th metatarsals in human feet The big toe has the first metatarsal). The cow has 6 phalanges (three in each toe).
For comparison, humans have 26 foot bones, comprising 7 tarsals, 5 metatarsals (one leading to each toe) and 14 phalanges (two for the big toe and three for every other toe).

Diagrams showing skeletons of the cattle and human foot.

15-21 are the ankle bones, 23 and 24 are the metatarsals, and 26-28 show the three phalanges in each toe. The same bones are labelled in the human foot on the right. Image credits: references 2 and 3.

(The image above actually shows the front leg of a cow, with the wrist and not the ankle bones, but the other bones are generally the same.)

Photo of the calcaneus.

The original bone I was asked to ID. © Saffron Walden Museum.

In life, this cattle calcaneus is from the right hock and has the smooth side faces outward to the right, as in the photo above. The shaft of the bone is then pointing up and back, toward the tail of the animal, to form the distinctive point of the hock in the cow’s leg (no. 32 in the first diagram). The top of the bone  is the attachment point for the large muscles of the lower leg. These are the gastrocnemius and soleus, (the ‘calf muscles’ in humans).

Some of the more fragile edges of this calcaneus are missing, but you can still see the main features.

This photo is pretty much a close-up of the photo above, from the bottom end. © Saffron Walden Museum.

In the photo, the letter A shows a smooth articular surface for the 3rd and 4th metatarsals, and B is one of the articular surfaces with the talus. C is a dome-shaped articular surface for the lateral malleolus, a bone on the outer edge of the hock.  The roughened depression (D) in the centre of the plate is called the tarsal sinus, and is mirrored by a similar area on the talus. This cavity houses blood vessels, fat, nerves, and a series of ligaments which hold the tarsal bones together.
The talar shelf (E), is at the near end of the shaft, and helps support the talus bone which sits above it. There is also a groove (F) for the tendon of the flexor digitorum lateralis muscle, which bends the toes.

 The calf muscles which attach to the top of the bone help straighten the leg when walking and running, while the length of the bone acts as a lever to amplify their effect and increase make the movement more efficient This is especially important in animals such as cattle, whose ancestors and wild relatives migrate across continents and run to escape predators.

 – James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.



1. Domestic_animals;_ _history_and_description_of_the_horse,_mule,_cattle,_sheep,_swine,_poultry,_and_farm_dogs,_(1858)_(14598393827)
By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14598393827/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/domesticanimalsh00alle/domesticanimalsh00alle#page/n51/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44520464

2. Cattle hock skeleton diagram © https://www.dcfirst.com/cow_skeletal_anatomy_poster.html Accessed 31.3.2020.

3. BruceBlaus. :Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 201”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. / CC BY 3.0

Identification – Limonite

Yellow limonite on brown goethite.

Limonite (pronounced “lime-on-ite”) is an iron ore similar to the more well-known iron oxides haematite and magnetite. It often forms as existing deposits of these other minerals react with water in an oxidation reaction, turning the iron oxide into iron oxide-hydroxide. This interrupts the regular crystal structure and opens up microscopic gaps that trap other water molecules in positions where they can’t chemically react and bond with the iron atoms. Water which forms part of the molecular structure of in this way is called ‘water of crystallisation’.

Yellow limonite on brown goethite.

Limonite can be ground up to produce the pigment yellow ochre, famous from prehistoric cave paintings. This sample from the Museums’ mineral collection has yellow limonite on brown goethite, another form of iron hydroxide.
Image: © Saffron Walden Museum.

Scientifically, limonite does not meet the criteria of a ‘true’ mineral, which must have a consistent chemical formula and molecular crystal structure. Because limonite forms as a replacement for several other minerals, this means that the crystal structure is not consistent. Variations in the original mineral, the compounds dissolved in the water and the environment where it forms, also mean the relative amounts of iron oxide, iron hydroxide and water of crystallisation are not constant either.

Four small, rounded pieces of limonite

These pieces of limonite were originally pieces of the gemstone garnet. Iron-rich water filtering through these stones replaced the original garnet mineral with limonite, keeping the shape.
Image: Eurico Zimbres FGEL/UERJ CC BY-SA 2.0 br (Wikimedia Commons)

Limonite may be any colour from a rich yellow to a dark brown, and was used historically to make the yellow ochre pigment which is still produced in this way in Cyprus. Despite this variation in colour, an easy way to distinguish it from haematite is the ‘streak test’. This can be used to separate many minerals which may appear similar to the eye, by rubbing the mineral along a piece of un-glazed white porcelain. Limonite will leave a yellow-to-brown streak, whereas haematite produces a red streak.

Two forms of haematite leave a rusty red streak on ceramic, central.

Two different forms of haematite both leaving a rust-red streak.
Image: KarlaPanchuk [CC BY-SA 4.0] (Wikimedia Commons)

Deep red botryoidal (grape-like) haematite.

This is an easily-recognised form of iron oxide, haematite. The rounded, bulbous form is described as ‘botryoidal’, meaning grape-like in Greek.
Image: © Saffron Walden Museum

 – James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.