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In a specific city in my D&D setting, necromancy is incredibly commonplace. Undead are generally very common; however, skeletons are favored by the government of the city as soldiers, and by the general populace as being less discomforting than the undead, who are rotting or still might have faces or other obvious remnants of who they once were in life.

Is there any way to render a body down into a skeleton that would be less labor intensive than manually removing everything, but that takes less time than letting everything rot? Ideally, the method shouldn’t damage the bones all that much, and probably shouldn’t visibly disfigure them.

Acid comes to mind, but I don’t know if it would actually be convenient, as it would have to be some sort of acid that didn’t dissolve the bones, and it would raise the question of where all of the acid was coming from as well. The technology in the setting is ~late 15th century to early 16th, so anything super advanced is off limits in terms of production.

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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP You can't expect Repyro to know about the boil method. They might be too young to be allowed use the stove. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 23, 2023 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Boiling bones leads to trapping fat in the tissue, which leads to discoloration, foul smells, and can weaken the structure. $\endgroup$
    – Repyro
    Apr 23, 2023 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Boiling runs a high risk of destroying the bone if you do it wrong, and you need the bone mostly clean first anyway. boiling will not get you from corpses to bone by itself. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ Boiling doesn't remove the smell and damages the more delicate bones. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ VTR, the needs of necromancy make this appreciably different to just stripping meat from bone. Suggest adding comment details re: unsuitability of boiling to question body $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Apr 26, 2023 at 0:42

8 Answers 8

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ANTS

enter image description here

Ants can skeletonise a corpse in hours. The only downside is the ants might be too effective, and eat the ligaments with the flesh, so the skeleton cannot stand up straight.

To prevent this, you must ensorcel great uncle Jerry with the correct wards before dumping him on the anthill.

Thanks ants.

Thants.

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    $\begingroup$ Several museums I worked at used ants over dermestids, the beetles are just too finicky and die too easily. They are great for a dry carcass but for anything fresh ants are just far less hassle. Just be aware the type of ant matter, the smaller the better, carpenter ants for instance will tear up the bone. they also may not clean the bone entirely, they will leave hair and some ligaments. Ants followed by a round of dermestids will get you clean bone the fastest, ants for speed dermestids for final cleaning. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ @john that looks like a good answer. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Apr 24, 2023 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Quite fascinating and practical really. Though that gif will haunt my dreams. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2023 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AllSeeingEye33 Then my work here is done. I must go now. My home planet needs me. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 24, 2023 at 17:42
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Dermestes maculatus

From the wiki article:

Dermestes maculatus is the species of carrion beetle typically used by universities and museums to remove the flesh from bones in skeleton preparation. Human and animal skeletons are prepared using this method and the practice has been in use for over 150 years. The beetles are especially useful for small animals with delicate bones.

Known also for their use on the forensic anthropology TV show, Bones.

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    $\begingroup$ good if you need to bone to be absolutely pristine but they are temperamental, slow, and can fly away. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 24, 2023 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ ooh, had a friend who worked in a museum that kept their little colony of them. They were amazing at making perfect skeletons $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Apr 24, 2023 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ Almost forgot, don't try an use them to clean anything that lives in the ocean, they don't marine animals like seals or ocean fish, and if you give them to many it will kill them. one fish every once and a while is OK just make sure they are few and far between. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 30, 2023 at 12:00
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Weka

You need to make them look nice and not stink. You need burial, followed by NaOH solution, followed by H2O2 and bleaching in the sun.

My mum assembles bones out of dead animals as a hobby. Really. It's called bonebuilding (or skeleton articulation), and it's a moderately popular hobby, with forums online.

This is the process she uses for whatever unfortunate seagull/ferret/seal/weka she processes:

  1. Burial. Her town is basically a giant anthill, with very high numbers of both normal and Argentine ants. A shallow grave results in both rotting and consumption of the flesh by ants. This takes two to six weeks.

  2. NaOH prep for mammals: For mammals, burial results in a brown, very smelly skeleton with little bits of flesh on it. The skeleton is placed in a cold, dilute NaOH solution and the flesh removed after a day by rubbing by hand or with a toothbrush. Bird skeletons don't survive NaOH.

  3. The skeleton is disassembled at this point.

  4. Disassembly and peroxide bleaching: At this point the skeleton is basically clean but is brown and smells of decay. A 1% hydrogen peroxide solution (or fictional equivalent thereof) for 1 to 7 days makes the skeleton white and clean.

  5. Bleach in the sun: For something particularly smelly, like a seal head or a whale vertebra, the bone is then left in a dry spot that catches sun.

The end result is a nice white skeleton that doesn't stink.

Yes, it gets weird when I ask her if she had a nice day sometimes.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: technology: lye is available to any civilisation. Peroxide is trickier but might be handwaved in for necromancers. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 3:59
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    $\begingroup$ brown and smelly might be a feature, not a bug $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2023 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant The peroxide could probably be replaced by any oxidizer that's not too terribly strong; potassium manganate comes to mind as one that could feasibly be produced by heating potash and pyrolusite, a mineral that can be mined. (the permanganate wouldn't be feasible with that tech level though; producing that requires electrolysis.) The bones may be stained a little by the manganese dioxide that would be produced, but it would remove the smell. $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Apr 24, 2023 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Hearth I'm not so sure. Hypochlorite destroys some bones; peroxide is a funny oxidising agent, sometimes it can be substituted for a generic oxidising agent, sometimes it can't. But manganate is a neat idea, and probably is less destructive than hypochlorite. Another alternative is barium peroxide, which could have been made by alchemists in an alternate history. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant Another possibility is even more readily available in the ancient world: Niter, in modern nomenclature potassium nitrate, KNO₃. It's been used as an oxidizer for centuries in black powder and other explosives, which means in a world where cannons exist, it will already be commercially mined and easily obtained (unlike manganese dioxide, which I'm not aware of any particular uses for at this tech level, except perhaps as a black pigment). $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Apr 25, 2023 at 2:12
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There are some insects whose larvae feed on corpse, like blow flies and carrion beetles:

Blow flies arrive on a body or any other type of organic decomposing matter, taste it with their sponging proboscis, and, once they feel it is a suitable place to lay eggs, oviposit clusters of eggs in natural orifices, so that the eggs are moist and protected. From these eggs, after a time that depends on the species of fly, season, temperature, weather conditions, relative humidity, and several other variables, little first instar larvae emerge. These tiny worm-like creatures are incredibly voracious and start immediately to consume the body. They molt twice, respectively into second instar and third instar, and their size increases significantly throughout their larval development.

Once the maggots have fed enough, they leave the body, which at this point probably has little left to offer, and migrate toward a dry place where they pupate.

These insects are already used in cases where the skeleton has to be quickly cleaned from the flesh.

In the past, defleshing the body was often done by boiling it so that the flesh would be easier to separate from the bones.

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Waste Not Want Not


The single best way to remove meat from any skeleton is the tried and true method of the Auntimoanian 72 Hour Barbecue! No fooling! And we at Auntie Wang's know just how to do the job right! Just skin the carcass as per normal, remove the innards, prepare the meat with Uncle Wompas's Twenty Five Spice Barbecue Rub and let that meat ride the over night train to Flavourtown!


Hoo wee! Once the former citizen has spent a few days in the smoker, I guarantee that the results will be tongue tickling, tooth taunting, flavourific fall-off-the-bone goodness! Just let our meat pickers separate the meat from the bones, box em up and send em on to your necromancers' bone builders.


There's no good reason to waste all that delectability on a nest of ants! Put it to good use! At fourpence a pound, not only will your Orckish and Ogrish families jump at the bargain, but other, more finnicky buyers will come to market looking to snap up the deal of the day!


MMMM-MMMM! Fresh from the hangman to your family's dinner bowl! Aunti Wang's Seventy Two Hour Auntimoanian Barbecue! NOW THAT'S GOOD EATIN!!

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    $\begingroup$ Gross, but this is probably the most effective answer. Slow cooking will make meat just fall right off bones, and it doesn't rely on the action of other creatures. As for what to do productively with the meat, you could always go with the Deadwood option of feeding it to pigs. Eating sentients probably ought to shift a D&D alignment toward evil (although if you're engaging in Necromancy, that ship's gonna sail there anyway). $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Slow cooking also significantly softens the bones; so, while eating most of the meat is certainly an option, you'd want to butcher the meat first, and still rely on a secondary method to finish cleaning the bones. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 10, 2023 at 15:27
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Magic, or the lazy wizard's solution

You want to use bodies for animated skeleton creation, but need to get rid of everything that's not the skeleton itself? Have the necromancy magic itself do it for you!

No matter the solution, it's bound to take more time, more steps, and probably more money as well. Integrating the body's "treatment" to the undeath spell will reduce the number of steps to create undeads, overall making the whole process much smoother.

If you have spells that allow to create undead skeleton guards from bodies, it doesn't seem too far-fetched to have variants of that magic which also gets rid of the body's non-skeleton matter.

And if that spell doesn't exist, you can bet someone out there will be working on creating it. As a side note, this could work as a plot hook for your story.

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A search for "easiest way to remove flesh from bones" revealed the following:

MACERATION: The easiest way to remove soft tissue from bones is to cover them in room-temperature water and let them soak. Using a crockpot or boiling them will very likely damage the bones – I don’t recommend it. Maceration will be the smelliest part of the process. Do not attempt it in your home or in your lab – make sure you have a garage, museum facility or backyard that you can use, or you will react to your life choices with a predictable amount of despair. You’ll want to change the water every few days or so at the beginning of the process, and you’ll likely find a lot of grease and fat accumulating on the surface of the water that you can skim off. Once most of the flesh has started to dislodge, add a little bit of dish soap to the mix to help speed things along. The amount of time this will take varies from about a week to much longer, depending on how much soft tissue is left on your animal and how big it is. (Source)

It would also help to research butchering. A knife is still the fastest way to get the bulk of flesh off the bones.

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It's about more than just removing the meat

The ideal skeleton guard should meet 3 criteria:

  1. They should look (and smell) as unoffensive as possible.
  2. The process should be relatively quick, cheap, and feasible with available tech.
  3. The bones should be left as strong as possible when done. Bones made weaker in preparation don't make for ideal guards after all.

To achieve these goals, the first step should be to manually remove most of the skin, organs, and meat with a knife. A skilled butcher can do in minutes what would take decomposers or chemical baths weeks to accomplish. Removing the skin is especially important since a lot of decomposers can't actually get into the body until after the skin breaks down. In a necromancer society, there is probably also other uses for the excess meat and organs; so, fleshcrafters might pay top dollar for you left overs.

Next you want to use insects to decompose the remains. There are already a lot of good examples of this in other answers, so no need to get more detailed. But, by removing the flesh manually first, you can reduce this from a several weak process to something that will only take between a few days and a few hours depending on the number and type of bugs you are working with.

Lastly, you want to bleach the bones. Humans, as a general rule, perceive bleached things as less offensive than natural darker colors: we blech our eggs, linens, papers, etc. just because we like the "clean" look of bleached things. It also removes unpleasant odors as well. But... the downside of bleaching is that most techniques that exist either require modern chemistry or damage the bones, so you have to be very particular about what method you choose. For this I would suggest steaming the bones with a mixture of boiled sulfur and salt water. This bleaching technique has been well known for thousands of years (it's how the Romans bleached thier togas) and it can be done with materials that would be highly available to a medieval society. But more important than just making the bones whiter and less smelly, hydrogen sulphite actually reinforces the bones while it bleaches them meaning that you actually get stronger skeletons out of the process than if you left the bones untreated.

Since this last step makes your guards tougher, even the least squeamish of city officials could be convinced to spare the extra expense of "skeletonizing" your guards for the practical advantages in confers.

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