Those of you who have read Lydia’s blog will know that we visited Reading Museum this week to see the display currently on view with items from the Mills Archive. We brought back a couple of items that related to our projects. For me, this was a book of clippings from the Cornwell collection that contained newspaper cuttings the owner had clearly thought worthwhile to keep. What I found interesting, or even surprising, was the fact that most of these clippings related to wheat and its different prices and varieties. In hindsight this should not have been a surprise given that wheat is the raw product the miller uses to make flour, but I had been so focused on the finished product that I had forgotten its beginnings. I therefore decided to do some research on wheat using the library here at the Mills Archive and I thought I’d share some of the history that I’ve come across.
Wheat is thousands of years old. Edgar wrote that the Chinese were using it 2,700 years before the Christian era, and indeed there is plenty of evidence of wheat growing and being used as a food group in ancient times. This evidence is varied and plentiful. Firstly, synonyms for wheat have been found in numerous ancient languages: mai in Chinese; sumana and godhuma in Sanskrit; chittah in Hebrew; and br in ancient Egyptian. Secondly, ancient authors such as Berossus, Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus all make reference to it within their works, for example Berossus writing in the 3rd century BC describes Babylonia as ‘a country situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates: that it abounded with wheat, and barley’. Thirdly, examples of ancient or prehistoric wheat have been found preserved. Examples of wheat grains have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and these discoveries led to botanist Franz Unger arguing that the Egyptians cultivated different types of wheat but that the most common one was ‘triticum turgidum’.
Meanwhile in Europe, in 1991 the body of Ötzi the Iceman was discovered. At 5,300 years old, this mummy is Europe’s oldest mummy and has been naturally preserved in the ice for all that time. The discovery of Ötzi had many implications, not least the discovery of grains of ‘einkorn’ (one grain) wheat which was preserved along with the body. This type of wheat is the oldest cultivated wheat and its discovery with Ötzi is the earliest evidence of agriculture in the Alpine region. Its importance to the understanding of the history of wheat and flour is shown by the fact that whilst the body of Ötzi is held at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, there is a replica of the figure at the Mehl Welten (World Flour) museum in Wittenburg.
The great importance of agriculture in the ancient world led to different cultures attributing their knowledge of it to the gods. The Egyptians had Osiris who was supposed to have taught agriculture to them whilst the Greeks believed that the goddess Demeter taught them the art of growing crops. These two figures were responsible for other aspects of the harvesting season. Osiris’s death and resurrection was linked to the flooding and receding of the Nile, leaving fertile silt for the crops to grow in, whilst Demeter was responsible for the creation of the seasons due to her grief over her daughter, Persephone, being taken by Hades to the Underworld. These are only two examples from two different cultures but there are numerous others, with the impact of the Roman culture echoing down to today through the use of the word ‘cereals’ from their goddess of agriculture, Ceres.
This heritage of wheat and agriculture has been seen as a useful advertising tool. Within the Northwestern Miller there is a series of advertisements by the company Occident called ‘Bread and Baking through the Ages’. Although focusing on bread rather than wheat there is a natural link from one to the other. From the Stone Age and Ancient Egyptians; to the Greeks and Romans; Vikings and King Alfred; up to Dutch Bakers of the 1400s and London bakeries from the 16th century, the history of wheat, agriculture, and baking is clear to see. Whilst the spread of wheat to America was down to early settlers of the 17th century, these advertisements highlight that its heritage was from the ancient world and that we have as much to thank our ancient ancestors for as they did for the original cultivation of wheat and the skills used. As I continue to delve into the world of roller flour milling, I will make sure not to forget the raw products nor the work of our ancestors again!
- The Story of a Grain of Wheat by William C. Edgar (New York, 1903).
- Wheat by R. F. Peterson (New York, 1965).
- The British Corn Trade by A. Barker (London, 1920).