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Grinding Grains, Then and Now

by Bruno Van de Casteele

June 5, 2016

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Donate 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).

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.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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