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Mexicolore contributor on querns Sue Watts

A comparative history of British and Mexican querns

We are most grateful to Dr. Sue Watts for writing this intriguing comparative history of querns in Britain and Mexico specially for us. Sue has a long standing interest in traditional milling and in querns in particular. It was this interest that led her to take a degree in archaeology as a mature student at the University of Exeter. This was followed by a PhD in archaeology on the structured deposition of querns. Sue has studied and reported on querns from a wide range of sites and has presented papers at both national and international conferences on the object biography, and the function and symbolism of querns and millstones. She has written and contributed to a number of articles, including From Quern to Computer for the Mills Archive, which she co-wrote with her husband, Martin who is a leading molinologist.

Pic 1: Grinding corn on a metate
Pic 1: Grinding corn on a metate (Click on image to enlarge)

The metate is a type of quern, a special stone tool used mainly for grinding corn (maize) and making tortillas, although it is also used for grinding other products, such as cocoa beans to make chocolate. It comprises two stones, a large stationary lower stone with a hollowed upper surface which stands on the floor and a smaller, hand-held upper stone or mano which is rubbed forwards and backwards across the corn or beans placed on the lower stone to grind them. It is usually used by women and is a key element of Mexican culture being considered along with the hearth, griddle and pot as one of the four items necessary for the house. Ancient metates have been found on archaeological sites in Mexico and other parts of Meso America dating back 6,000 or 7,000 years.

Pic 2: Neolithic saddle quern from Windmill Hill, Wiltshire in Avebury Museum
Pic 2: Neolithic saddle quern from Windmill Hill, Wiltshire in Avebury Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Similar shaped milling stones were also once in everyday use in Britain. Here they are called saddle querns, named from the characteristic curving shape of the lower stone. The upper stone is usually called a rubber or a muller. The word quern comes from an old English or Anglo Saxon word, cweorn.
Saddle querns were first used in Britain in the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age (4,000-2,000 BC). This coincides with the introduction of arable farming, which seems to have begun in the lands around the Eastern Mediterranean about 13,000-9,000 years ago and slowly spread across south-east Asia and Europe to reach the shores of Britain around 4,000BC.

Pic 3: Using a saddle quern – the servant behind the mill (M. Watts collection)
Pic 3: Using a saddle quern – the servant behind the mill (M. Watts collection) (Click on image to enlarge)

It was not just the early farming know-how that spread but also the crops themselves - ancient varieties of wheat and barley that grew wild in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The saddle quern is also the type of quern that was used by the ancient Egyptians and which the Philistines put Samson to work at when they captured and imprisoned him.
In Meso America, maize is similarly a native plant which is thought to have been domesticated in the Tehuacan or Balsas Valleys in Mexico around 2500BC. Wheat and barley was not grown here until introduced by Spanish settlers in the late 15th and 16th centuries and who, in turn, brought back maize to Europe.

Pic 4: Bronze Age trough querns at Jarlshof, Shetland
Pic 4: Bronze Age trough querns at Jarlshof, Shetland (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeological evidence suggests that farming was slow to catch on in Britain, many communities preferring the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It seems that at first crops were grown on a very small scale, perhaps only for use on special occasions or to supplement the hunter-gathering way of life. It wasn’t really until the Bronze Age (2,000-700BC) that farming became a way of life. Many settlements were built during this period with small fields laid out for growing crops and the saddle quern became part of the usual household equipment. In Scotland early saddle querns were much larger with trough-like hollows for grinding and so are usually called trough querns (pic 4). The smaller, flatter saddle querns didn’t really come into use here until the Iron Age (700BC-AD43). Trough querns are also found in Cornwall.

Pic 5: Pueblo multiple grinding bins (P. Hill Collection)
Pic 5: Pueblo multiple grinding bins (P. Hill Collection) (Click on image to enlarge)

Excavations on Bronze Age sites have also shown that it was not uncommon for a saddle quern to have two or more rubbers that were used with it and also that two or even three saddle querns are sometimes found in the same house. This is very similar to Mexican rural households in more recent times where corn is typically first ground on one metate and then ground again more finely on a second metate, using a different mano. This suggests that saddle querns in Bronze Age round houses in Britain may have been used in the same way.

Pic 6: Iron Age beehive quern from Hunsbury Hillfort in Northampton Museum
Pic 6: Iron Age beehive quern from Hunsbury Hillfort in Northampton Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

In the succeeding Iron Age, around 400BC, a new type of milling tool came into use in Britain - the rotary quern, which gradually took over from the saddle quern as the principal tool for grinding grain. The rotary quern has two circular stones, a stationary lower one and an upper stone that is turned above it by means of a projecting handle. The grain is poured into a hole (eye) in the centre of the upper stone and ground between the two stones as the upper stone is turned. It is thought that the rotary quern may have been invented in Spain and gradually spread northwards, although it is also possible that it developed here in Britain quite independently. Iron Age rotary querns are sometimes called beehive querns as their shape resembles that of an old-fashioned straw bee skep. There is also a north-south divide, with those from the midlands and north having flat grinding surfaces and those from the south having sloping grinding surfaces.

Pic 7: Grinding grain together (M. Watts Collection)
Pic 7: Grinding grain together (M. Watts Collection) (Click on image to enlarge)

The rotary quern is a much more efficient milling tool than the saddle quern. It can also be worked by two people which makes the task not only less time consuming but also less arduous and more companionable. That said, Mexican women often bring their metates together, especially if grinding corn for a special occasion, so that they can work and socialise at the same time. It is quite likely that women back in the prehistoric period in Britain did the same too.
So, why wasn’t the rotary quern also invented and used in Mexico and other parts of Meso America? The main reason is that before it is milled, corn is first soaked in water and lime (this not only loosens the hull but also incidentally helps release niacin from the corn). While rotary querns are good for milling dry products, the metate or saddle quern is much better for grinding wet products. To put it simply, for grinding soaked corn the metate was the best tool for the job. This is despite the fact that grinding corn is a very time-consuming task compared to grinding wheat or barley on a saddle quern.

Pic 8: Animal powered mills at a bakery in Pompeii, Italy
Pic 8: Animal powered mills at a bakery in Pompeii, Italy (Click on image to enlarge)

Back in Britain, rotary querns generally became flatter in shape in the Roman period (AD43-AD410), probably influenced by the querns of German lava that the Roman army brought with them (although evidence from northern Scotland suggests that flatter, disc-shaped querns were already in use there by 150BC-200BC). Large rotary mills worked by donkeys or horses were also used. These are often called Pompeian mills as many have been found in the ruins of the bakeries there (pic 8), but the remains of one has also been found in London. Watermills were also first used in the Roman period but windmills did not come into use in Britain until the 12th century.

Pic 9: Pot quern from Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire, with a face around the spout hole
Pic 9: Pot quern from Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire, with a face around the spout hole  (Click on image to enlarge)

The use of querns was very much restricted during the Medieval period. Most people were obliged to take their grain to the local manorial mill to be ground, for which they also had to pay a fee, which was a good source of income for the Lord of the Manor. The miller also took a toll, a portion of the grain, as his fee. This situation lasted in Scotland until the 17th-18th century. Nevertheless, households still used querns when they could, hiding them away if manorial officials came around, and there are contemporary records of confiscations and fines. But not everyone was prohibited from using them, for there are also records of people being allowed to use them to grind their own grain, usually on payment of a fine or a fee. Monasteries and manorial households also used querns in their kitchens and in the medieval period a new type of rotary quern is found - the pot quern (pic 9).

Pic 10: Handmill from Long Crichel, Dorset in Salisbury Museum
Pic 10: Handmill from Long Crichel, Dorset in Salisbury Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

As its name implies, the lower stone of the pot quern, which comprises a circular, polygonal or square block of stone, has a circular recess into which the upper stone fits. The ground meal is expelled through a spout cut through the side of the lower stone. On some pot querns this spout has a face carved around it and the meal comes out of the mouth - an example perhaps of medieval humour (see pic 9). Querns continued to be used in the post-medieval period (1540-1750) for grinding small amounts of grain and also mustard and other spices for home consumption and they are often referred to in 16th-18th century household inventories. This period saw the final development of the rotary quern, the geared handmill on which a small pair of millstones was turned by hand through a pair of gears (pic 10).

Pic 11: Metate with three ornamental legs (Bennett & Elton 1898, 75)
Pic 11: Metate with three ornamental legs (Bennett & Elton 1898, 75) (Click on image to enlarge)

By the beginning of the 19th century though the quern had all but gone out of use in England and Wales but it continued to be used in Scotland and Ireland into the 20th century. In other parts of the world, particularly Africa, saddle querns and also rotary querns are still in use. In Mexico the metate has also continued to be used, despite the introduction of the molinos de nixtamal in the 19th century. Often made with three legs and sometimes beautifully carved, the metate has been described as ‘greatly superior in construction and finish’ to the European saddle quern. Together with the saddle quern it is one of the oldest and most continually used craft tools in the world.

Pic 12: Querns across the sea, both c. 1000 BCE: Costa Rican metate, Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Precolombí, Barcelona (top); broken saddle quern, Wandle Valley, UK, Museum of London (bottom)
Pic 12: Querns across the sea, both c. 1000 BCE: Costa Rican metate, Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Precolombí, Barcelona (top); broken saddle quern, Wandle Valley, UK, Museum of London (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

Further reading:-
• Bauer, A.J. 1990: Millers and Grinders. Technology and Household Economy in Meso-America, Agricultural History, 64.1, 1-17
• Bennett, R. and Elton, J. 1898: History of Corn Milling, Vol. 1. Handstones, Slave and Cattle Mills, London, Simpkin, Marshall and Co. Ltd.
• Graham, M. 1994: Mobile Farmers, International Monographs in Prehistory, Ethnoarchaeological Series 3, Ann Arbor, Michigan
• Watts, M. 2002: The Archaeology of Mills & Milling, Stroud, Tempus
• Watts, M. & Watts, S. From Quern to Computer. The History of Flour Milling - link below...
• Watts, S. R. 2014: The Life and Death of Querns, Southampton Monographs in Archaeology NS 1, Southampton, Highfield Press.

Image sources:-
• Pix 1 & 12: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 & 10: photos by Martin Watts
• Pix 3, 5, 7 & 11: images courtesy M. Watts.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 04th 2019

emoticon Q. When we find peoples on opposites sides of the ocean using the same seed grinding stones at the same time, what do we call it?
A. Querncidence...

See our mini-feature on the metate...

‘The daily grind....’

‘From Quern to Computer: The History of Flour Milling’
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