Grinding Grains, Then and Now

In many science and heritage museums, especially when there is a focus on archaeology or how our ancestors lived, there is the possibility to grind your own grain. You have two stones, throw some grains in it, and grind away by moving one of the stones back and forth. A lot of people, especially kids, tire of it quickly, and go on to the next exhibit.

But I wanted to try this a bit more in depth. So this weekend I looked around for some stones, threw in some grains and started grinding away. The kids soon joined. Our conclusion was that it takes really a long time to get flour. Even considering that we were inexperienced and spilled some flour during the process, it took us still about half an hour to get the amount shown on the picture below. My daughter was especially keen on this archaeology experiment (she did most of the work).

Half an hour’s work—just enough for some cookies.

Secondly, it was also very tiring. We sat outside on our knees, and ground away. My back and my feet start to hurt really fast, and I’m not even talking about the knees. My daughter tried switching from a back and forth movement to a rotational grinding. After looking this up, we found that these are actually the two main techniques that exist. Dr. John H. Lienhard, a professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, has some great pictures and information on his website.

Respect for our ancestors! To feed a family, someone had to do this for a couple of hours—every day. Even taking into account that they would have more experience, that was still a lot of work and very straining on your body.

I wanted to know a bit more about this, and looked around on the Internet for more information. I also got some information from the book Why the West Rules—For Now (2010) by Ian Morris. Via this I found information about the excavations from Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria, from a location occupied about 9,500 years ago. It was a rushed excavation in the 1970s, as the site would be under water from a newly built dam, used to create the reservoir Lake Assad. But the results were impressive indeed.

It turns out only the female skeletons had an arthritic toe. Scientists assume that this is because they were on their knees grinding the grains and putting pressure on the stone by using their calves and finally their toe. If I understand it correctly, it is only one toe, presumably because one foot was placed over the other to have a stable three-point base (knees and right foot). I tried to repeat that, but it wasn’t easy. Anyway, it seems that females were therefore the ones responsible for grinding the grain, although all skeletons suffer from other ailments due to lifting of heavy weights.

There was even a secondary interesting fact (though no less painful): all teeth, from both sexes, were severely damaged and fractured. Presumably this is because the grain was mingled with small stone fragments and remains of grain shells, which were not sieved out of the mixture. If you eat this once (like we tried) it’s no issue, but if you eat this day in and day out, it will have an effect.

In all, we did what is called “experimental archaeology,” and learned a lot by doing firsthand work the way our ancient ancestors may have. It has tremendously increased my respect on how they managed to get by.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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9 Responses to Grinding Grains, Then and Now

  1. Wordwizard says:

    Why not switch from using right foot to using left foot to give equal wear? Why not sieve the results?

    • Bruno Van de Casteele says:

      Good point about switching foot… I have no idea.

      Concerning the sieving: you need a decent tissue (woven). Those were only invented 3000 years later. Incidently, in excavations from the same site they find indeed that at that time the fractured teeth diminished, except for a few women who had large markings on their teeth (presumably because they held the threads with their teeth). This also indicates specialisation – not everyone did or was allowed to weave.

      • Wordwizard says:

        If sieves were impractical, how about winnowing? Even shaking the ground product, so the large heavy objects would go to the bottom would help in getting rid of them, then blow or tap the actual ground grain above off of them.

        • Bruno Van de Casteele says:

          Oh ok maybe my comment wasn’t that clear: the teeth were severely damaged by microscopic particles. I really hope for them that large pieces were indeed winnowed out.

    • Swampwitch7 says:

      In old fashioned times people frequently stuck to old fashioned ways taught to them by their grandmothers. Granny used her right foot, so I’m using my right foot. So There.

      Cooks did not sieve the results because 1] a fine sieve was not part of the cookware selection available to them and 2] there wasn’t anybody to tell them why eating sand is not so good for your teeth.

  2. Nice experiment. Nice writing. Nice education, both for yourself and even more so for your children. Well done all round.

  3. Incidentally, it is easy to miss references to conditions in circumstances that are alien to us through referring to times longer ago than we are familiar with, or societies whose way of life we do not know. Only decades after reading these words in “Cold Iron” in Kipling’s “Rewards and Fairies” (available free online from Project Gutenberg) did I realise that the behaviour reflected a major and genuine difference between the state of the food that we buy unquestioningly, and the food of the hunter-gatherer or the agricultural peasant:
    “He ate with a slow sideways thrust and grind, just like old Hobden, and, like Hobden, hardly
    dropped a crumb.”
    Their potatoes and ground grain contained gravel that no modern vendor could tolerate in their products; not if they wanted to remain in business for a week.

  4. Kenneth says:

    Definitely gives you a good appreciation for specialization and mechanization that arose. In the amount of time it would take on person to grind one loaf’s worth of flour by hand, even a simple machine, like what first appeared a couple thousand years ago, could probably produce enough flour to give the entire village one loaf of bread.

  5. It’s worse than just damaging your teeth I’m afraid. There is a dentist who’s also an (amateur) forensic archaeologist and he has looked at a lot of Egyptian mummy’s teeth. Many of them almost certainly died in great pain from dental infections caused by eating bread made from that badly-ground flour.

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