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From Quern to Computer: The history of flour milling

Cereal products: Prehistory to the Romans

The domestication of wild cereal plants in the eastern Mediterranean some 8,000-10,000 years ago led to, or indeed may even have been caused by, an increased consumption of cereal-based products which could have been either food or drink-based.  The debate as to which came first, bread or beer, is long and on-going.  Regardless, it is likely that as the knowledge of agriculture spread, together with the cereal crops themselves, so too did the means and methods of processing and using the harvested grain.

Using a quern or handstone, India 1909 (Postcard from the Mills Archive Collection, MCFC-10529)
Using a quern or handstone, India 1909 (Postcard from the Mills Archive Collection, MCFC-10529)

Cereals were first grown in Britain in the Neolithic period, from c.4000BC.  Such cultivation appears initially to have been on a small scale only, cereals not becoming a staple food until the Middle Bronze Age c.1600-1200BC. 

Concentrations of carbonised grain found at significant sites such as the causewayed enclosures at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire and Hembury, Devon, or at one of the few large timber houses that have been discovered such as Balbridie, Grampian point perhaps to grain being stored for special rather than everyday use.  Ground on saddle querns, the resultant meal could have been made into porridge, added as a thickener to soups and stews or made into flat unleavened loaves on a hearthstone by the fire (emmer, which was grown throughout the prehistoric period in Britain, is particularly suited to this type of bread as it is low in gluten).

Alternatively, the grain could have been soaked and placed in large pots to germinate by the warmth of a hearth and the resultant malted grain dried and coarsely ground for use in brewing.  Cereal-based residues found in Neolithic Grooved Ware pots and Early Bronze Age beakers have been interpreted as the remains of alcoholic beverages.  The large size of the former would have been ideal as fermentation or storage vessels, but the decorated beakers are more likely to have been drinking vessels.  Two small pieces of carbonised bread were found in a Neolithic pit during excavations at Yarnton in Oxfordshire in the 1990s.  The bread, which returned a calibrated radiocarbon date of 3620-3350 BC, making it the oldest known bread in Britain, comprised coarsely ground grains including barley. 

As saddle querns are capable of producing a fine meal, this type of bread must have been made deliberately and it has been suggested that it was a partially baked malted cake similar to the bappirs made by the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians.  Such cakes were cooked on a hearth and, once cooled, crumbled and soaked in warm water which was then sieved and the resulting wort left to ferment in large pots.  Low in gluten, barley is more suited for making bannocks and malting for ale than for bread-making.

Although rare, ovens are not unknown in the prehistoric period.  Some of the earliest known are slate-lined box-shaped pits which were found in several of the round houses in the Bronze Age settlement at Trethellan Farm, Cornwall, dated c.1500-1200BC.  These were interpreted as Dutch ovens, ‘closed’ heat-retaining ovens in which a fire was lit and the embers removed when hot.  Ovens comprising a horseshoe-shaped setting of stones which would have supported a thick clay dome and which could have been used for malting or baking, have been found on a number of later Iron Age sites including Meare Lake Village in Somerset and the hillforts of Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire, Maiden Castle in Dorset and Danebury in Hampshire.

Reconstructed Iron Age oven at Castell Henllys, Dyfed (SWAT-006)
Reconstructed Iron Age oven at Castell Henllys, Dyfed (SWAT-006)

At both the Glastonbury and Meare Lake Villages in Somerset, which were occupied between c.300BC and 50BC, fragments of rolls or small cakes were found during excavations in the late 19th century.  The pieces comprised whole wheat grains mixed with a sticky substance, possibly honey.  Again these could be the remains of malt cakes for brewing. 

The last meal of the Lindow II bog man from Cheshire, who died c.2BC-AD119, included baked or griddled unleavened bread.  Unlike the ‘bread’ from the Lake Villages this was made from finely ground emmer and spelt mixed with barley.  When leavened bread was first eaten in Britain is not known.  Pliny the Elder noted that the Gauls and Spaniards used the scum from fermenting beer to leaven their bread, the result being a very light loaf (Natural History 18.12).

There is much more information available on Roman milling and baking due to a wealth of classical writings as well as archaeological evidence.  Although the Romans are credited with introducing both water- and animal-powered milling to Britain, most grain was still ground on a daily basis using rotary querns.  Wheaten flour was preferred and there were many types of bread which were sometimes flavoured by being cooked on aromatic leaves or having seeds sprinkled on top.  Although the nutritional value of wholemeal bread was apparently well known, white bread was considered superior.

There was also a grade of army bread, panis militaris, which was a wholemeal bread.  The Roman army generated a huge demand for grain and the majority of forts had at least two granaries (horrea) where large quantities of grain and other goods could be stored.  A large bronze grain measure (modius) was found just outside the fort at Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall in 1915, which may have been used for issuing soldiers’ rations or to check incoming supplies.  It was made during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (AD81-96) and so may have originally been brought here by the garrison who occupied the earlier fort on the site.  When full it holds just under 20 pints (11.4 litres) of grain although according to its inscription it held 17.5 sexterii, that is about 17 pints (9.65 litres), so it may once have had an internal gauge.  Alternatively, it has been suggested that it was used to cheat local suppliers.

According to Herodian (c.AD170-240), the Emperor Caracalla (AD188-217) led the life of the ordinary soldier, grinding his own daily ration of grain, making a loaf of bread which he then baked in the ashes of a hearth (Herodian  Although barrack blocks had their own hearths for heating and cooking, communal ovens were built within separate bake houses or into the back of the ramparts because of the risk of fire. 

Discovery of carbonised loaves in the oven of a mill and bakery in Pompeii c. 1800 (MWAT-035)
Discovery of carbonised loaves in the oven of a mill and bakery in Pompeii c. 1800 (MWAT-035)

The bakeries in Pompeii with their large hour-glass millstones and large ovens are well known and a few Pompeiian type donkey mills have also been found in Britain.  A number of probable small bakeries have also been found, such as at Topsham near Exeter, Devon and Canterbury.  Some private establishments were also large enough to have their own ovens but in most dwellings bread would have been baked under a pot in the ashes of the hearth. 

Cato (234-149BC) gives a simple recipe for kneaded bread in his book on agriculture, written about 160BC: ‘pour meal into the bowl, add water gradually and knead thoroughly.  When it is well-kneaded, roll out and bake under a crock.’ (On Agriculture 74).  No remains of Roman bread have been found in Britain but carbonised loaves that were round and flat and scored across the top into segments were recovered from a mill and bakery in Pompeii.  Otherwise ground meal would simply have been used for porridges, soups and stews as it always had been; porridge or puls of alica (groats) made from pounded emmer was a staple food in earlier Roman times.  Indeed the Latin for baker is pistor, a pounder.  Pliny also notes that chalk was added to pounded emmer (zea) to make it whiter, showing that adulteration is nothing new (Natural History 18.23, 29).   

‘Spanish mills’. Rotary querns from Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain, 2nd to 1st century BC (Photo S. Watts)
‘Spanish mills’. Rotary querns from Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain, 2nd to 1st century BC (Photo S. Watts)

Barley was also used for porridge, for which it appears to have been soaked in water, dried and roasted in a shallow pan before it was ground.  However, Pliny commented that although barley bread was much used in earlier days, it had been ‘condemned by experience, and barley is now mostly fed to animals’, although he goes on to say that barley water was beneficial to health (Natural History 18.14, 15).  Barley also appears to have been used as punishment rations in the Roman army.  It also continued to be the food of the rural poor and would have been eaten in those areas where it grew better than wheat and, although there is no direct evidence, it was also probably widely used for making beer. 

Cervisia or Celtic beer was very popular, at least in Britain.  An account for food and drink recovered from the commanding officer’s residence in the fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall includes several orders for it.  The Emperor Julianus (AD332-363), however, was less than complementary: ‘…How came this goat-reek? Wine is nectar-scented/The Celt from barley-tops, so we suppose/ For want of grapes and nose/This brew invented…’.  The large drinking vessels made in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD would have held two or more pints of liquid and were perhaps, therefore, more likely for beer than wine.  It has also been suggested that the corn-drying kilns found in southern and eastern Britain, which are predominantly dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries were for malting. 

Select bibliography

  • Brears, P, Black, M., Corbishley, G., Renfrew, J. and Stead, J. 1993: A Taste of History.10,000 Years of Food in Britain, London, British Museum Press
  • Dineley, M. and Dineley, G. 2000: Neolithic Ale. Barley as a Source of Malt Sugars for Fermentation. In, Fairbairn, A.S. (ed.), Plants in Neolithic Britain and Beyond, Oxford, Oxbow Books
  • Haverfield, F. 1916: Modius Claytonensis. The Roman Bronze Measure from Carvoran, Archaeologia Aeliana, 3rd series, 13, 85-102
  • Holden, T.G. 1995: The Last Meals of the Lindow Bog Men. In, Turner, R.C. and Scaife, R.G., Bog Bodies, London, British Museum Press
  • Johnson, S. 1989: Hadrian’s Wall, London, B.T. Batsford Ltd/English Heritage
  • Moritz, L.A. 1958: Grain-Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity, Oxford, Clarendon Press
  • Veen, M. van der 1989: Charred Grain Assemblages from Roman-Period Corn Driers in Britain, Archaeological Journal, 146, 302-319
  • Wilkins, J., Harvey, D. and Dobson, M. 1995: Food in Antiquity, University of Exeter Press