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Gems of the Archive: Hand to Mouth

Although most of the records we hold at the Archive are in paper form, or similar – photos, drawings, documents, diaries and the like – we also have a small range of larger artefacts which pop up in our collections every now and then.

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Two such artefacts from our Gems collection are hand-powered milling devices: instrumental tools which represent two significant points on the long timeline of milling history. They are amongst the oldest items we have here at the Archive – although one trumps the other by many centuries in terms of old age!

We often think of ‘the old days’ of milling history being traditional wind and water-powered mills, and forget to look back even further to the simple milling methods upon which the modern industry is founded. As the Archive’s project [From Quern to Computer] explains, stones have been used to crush and grind seeds, plants and minerals for hundreds of thousands of years. Corn milling, however, only really began some ten to twelve thousand years ago, with the earliest known milling contraption being a saddle quern: a flat or dish-shaped (saddle-shaped) slab of stone, with a hand-held upper stone which is rubbed across it, grinding whatever is put in between the stones.

Our beehive quern (so called because its shape is similar to that of an early straw beehive; also known as a rotary quern), dates from the Iron Age, around the 2nd Century BC. It is made from a reasonably rare rock called Hertfordshire puddingstone, which is perfect for milling as it is very hard and slow wearing. It is classed as a conglomerate sedimentary rock: formed millions of years ago as small flint pebbles were deposited in a clay rivers, it then hardened into a very strong mass during the Ice Age. It probably would have been used by women or slaves.

There is a significant area of the side missing on our quern, and part of this would have originally accommodated a wooden handle which would have aided the person using the quern to move it. We can tell this because of the circular hollowed area where a wooden handle would have comfortably fitted, and because of the further wear within the cavity. Signs of wear are also visible on the sides of the central perforation, known as an inverted-conical hopper.

The quern isn’t quite portable enough to carry around in a bag, but it could have been transported by cart or by animal without too much difficulty, if its users were to move from place to place. Despite its small size, the beehive quern is surprisingly heavy (although perhaps not all that surprising, seeing as it is made of rock!) – and this is only the top half – the whole quern would have consisted of a bottom half as well. Most of the surviving beehive querns have their bottom sections missing – read our previous intern Lydia’s article here to find out why that could be.

Our handmill is a much more recent milling device, dating from the 18th century. It was carried by the Caroleans, the highly-trained soldiers of the Swedish Empire, during the Great Northern Wars of the period. Being relatively light, compact and easy to dismantle and transport, the handmill was a hugely useful piece of kit, and each soldier would have carried their own. As well as ensuring that they had the ability to grind corn and therefore keep themselves fed anywhere they went, the handmill allowed the soldiers to have some freedom of choice over what they ate: flour could be turned into products such as bread, biscuits and flat cakes depending on the needs and desires of the soldier, the marching conditions and the other ingredients available for cooking at the time.

As you can see from these examples, milling wasn’t always done using huge grindstones, nor by harnessing the power of water or wind. Across history, humans have adapted milling to their specific needs and tastes, governed by many various factors such as geographic location, availability of products, the ability of millers – the list is endless. Interestingly, it is the very oldest of milling technologies, for hand-powered milling, that have been the most continuously used across history, beginning many thousands of years ago and still in use in some countries today.

Read the original Gem articles by clicking on the titles below:



An article about the handmill can also be found in the publication Mills at War by Ron and Mildred Cookson, available from the Mills Archive.