The Daily Grind

Once you have dehulled grain, the next step is to grind it. In Ancient Egypt, this would be done by hand, on grinding stones. Not the large mortar and pestles used standing for dehulling (or for mashing other materials), but specialized stones.

When modern researchers try to duplicate ancient techniques, it can be problematic at best.

It was possible to get emmer flour, but I decided to go with the actual grain to get a more accurate result. I didn’t need to remove the husk because it was already processed. The grain was small, darker than regular wheat, and really hard. I started working with a kitchen mortar and pestle, most likely a similar to one used by an Egyptian woman. 

I started grinding the grain while I was sitting in front of the TV. It took me a couple of hours and by the end my arms were aching. It was a tiring and time-consuming process. I worked with just a handful of grains at a time, hitting and grinding the grain, and trying to find the best technique. First, I tried cracking the grain, then grinding on the sides of the mortar. Finally, I decided to try a combination of hitting and grinding for finer results.

The result was a coarse flour with some bigger pieces. I tried to cheat using a coffee grinder, but the result was surprisingly similar. Without an actual milling machine, I don’t think it’s possible to get a really fine flour. I couldn’t imagine how the Egyptians managed to get a finer result using traditional tools.

Ancient Egyptian Bread, by Miguel Esquirol Rios. The Historical Cooking Project. December 10, 2014.

A mortar and pestle isn’t the right tool for grinding grain. Ancient Egyptians used them for de-hulling grain, among other things. For actual grinding, they used a saddle quern.

Some saddle quern grinding is done standing up.

Senenu Grinding Grain, Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art.  Brooklyn Museum, New York, Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Gallery.  The royal scribe Senenu appears here bent over a large grinding stone.  ca. 1352-1336 B.C.E. or ca. 1322-1319 B.C.E. or ca. 1319-1292 B.C.E.,  late Dynasty 18, New Kingdom.

And some is done kneeling.

Statuette of a woman grinding grain; Limestone; from Giza, Egypt (G 2415), found in 1921; mid- to late Dynasty 5 (reigns of Niussera to Unis, 2420-2323 B.C.); acc. 21.2601.  Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Models of the Palace bakery show women doing the grinding, and household grinding was probably the same. Many of the statues, like the two above, show men doing this work (never mind that one of the photographers seems confused).

A quern is a grinding stone and they’ve been around for at least ten thousand years.

Prior to the invention of the rotary quern, perhaps in north-eastern Spain about the fifth century BC, all grinding was undertaken by rubbing a hand held handstone against a larger base stone. The base stone could take a range of forms, and there is a correspondingly wide terminology for them. In Pharaonic Egypt, the cereal grinding quern was a more or less flat or somewhat curved stone, longer than wide, and with a roughened surface, on which a handstone was rubbed back and forth over the long axis to pulverise the grains, and is also known as a saddle quern.

Experimental Grinding and Ancient Egyptian Flour Production. Delwen Samuel. King’s College London, Nutritional Sciences Division.  January 2010.
Saddle Quern and Rubbing Stone.  Early Neolithic (3700 – 3500 BC).  Etton, Cambridgeshire, England.

The basic floor model is less efficient and not the style that the characters in my book, which takes place during the New Kingdom, would have used.

Throughout the Old Kingdom, statuettes and tomb paintings that illustrate the grinding process all show the millers kneeling on the ground; there are many other examples). By the Middle Kingdom millers are shown working at querns placed on raised platforms…According to the artistic record, by the Middle Kingdom the quern raised on an emplacement was a standard installation throughout Egypt….The querns were made from granite or quartzitic sandstone.

Experimental Grinding and Ancient Egyptian Flour Production. Delwen Samuel. King’s College London, Nutritional Sciences Division.  January 2010.


Next, the the whole grain was milled into flour, usually using a flat grinding stone known as a saddle quern. From Neolithic times through the Old Kingdom, these grinding stones were placed on the floor, which made the process difficult. However, tombs scenes of the Middle Kingdom show the querns raised onto platforms, called quern emplacements. Some of these have been excavated at a few New Kingdom sites. They made life much easier, and probably made the work quicker as well. Modern experimentation with these devices has shown that no grit was required to aid the milling process, as has sometimes been suggested by scholars, and the the texture of the flour could be precisely controlled by the miller.

Bread in Ancient Egypt.  Tour Egypt.  By Jane Howard.  August 21st, 2011.

Delwen Samuel’s research is amazing and detailed. She not only delves into the history and the archeological record, but she uses ancient tools (mostly replicas) to show how this work actually happened. Here she is practicing the grinding of emmer into flour.

One [10 g] batch at a time was placed on the surface of the quern and the handstone was passed firmly ten times over the grain. One ‘pass’ consisted of the handstone pushed from the end of the base stone closest to the miller, across the length of the stone to the other end, and back again…The resulting meal was carefully swept off the surfaces of the quern and handstone with a brush onto a tray, and the process repeated with another batch until the whole sample had been ground. Fine meal was produced by repeating the coarse milling process…Each of these coarse meal batches was ground with 20 passes of the handstone over the saddle stone (30 passes in total)….

Breaking the whole grains into coarse particles was the most difficult stage of the milling process. When the grains are whole, they present a relatively smooth, rounded surface which slides over the slightly roughened surface of the saddle stone and which is difficult to grip with the rounded surface of the handstone. The initial few strokes required very firm pressure and had to be done slowly, but once completed the grains began to fracture and break. As soon as some irregular grain fragments were produced, along with the exposure of the more easily abraded inner grain (the starchy endosperm), it became quicker to grind but firm pressure was still needed….

A more effective method is to work at the edge of a pile of grains, cracking the outer grains to large fragments and exposing the starchy endosperm. The irregular pieces ‘stick’ onto the rough stone much better than the smooth rounded whole grains and also allow the handstone to grip the adjoining whole grains so that they can be quickly cracked. Once some of the whole grain is reduced to coarse fragments in this fashion, it is easy to mill across increasingly larger areas of the quern surface. The initial ‘cracking’ stage is quite rapid. Using this more effective method, it is possible on this size of quern to mill much more than 10 g of grain at a time to a coarse or a fine meal.

Experimental Grinding and Ancient Egyptian Flour Production. Delwen Samuel. King’s College London, Nutritional Sciences Division. January 2010.

What does saddle quern grinding looks like?

Video of grinding with a saddle quern. Nick Roberson, Roberson Stone Carving.

Ancient Ireland Grain Processing Quern Stones 101. Start at 1:25 for saddle quern grinding demonstration.

It’s not particularly difficult when in a comfortable standing position (and in these videos the angles don’t look optimized; the querns are horizontal and on a modern table or counter, vs. angled down to allow gravity to add to the grinding power) and the experienced video subjects (who do demos regularly but don’t live in communities where this is how they prepare their food) seem to get mixed size flour in about a half dozen passes; I’d guess another half dozen would give more uniformly fine flour, for a total of 12 passes vs. Samuel’s 30 pass total.

How long does grinding take?

During earlier grinding experiments with a replica New Kingdom quern emplacement, an authentic ancient Egyptian saddle quern and a small ancient basalt handstone, I took just under two hours to grind 1.2 kg of emmer grain. This is the same as or longer than for my ground-based milling experiments.

…It seems reasonable to estimate that in ancient Egypt, milling flour on the ground for domestic production might have taken about three hours a day.

Experimental Grinding and Ancient Egyptian Flour Production. Delwen Samuel. King’s College London, Nutritional Sciences Division.  • January 2010.

With a raised platform saddle quern and strong experienced grinders, let’s say we can do one kilogram per hour. Our large household in the novel uses 89 lbs of emmer grain each day. Five of those pounds go into porridge. Porridge can be made with whole grains or cracked ones. Either way, you’re not making flour.

So 85 lbs of grain = 38.5 kg. Or 38.5 hours of work. A day. But that’s only slightly better than what an inexperienced researcher did without the extraordinary upper body strength of someone who does this daily. I’m going to double the production rate. That fits as well with very rough estimates from videos.

So about 19 hours a day for grinding. If the household has four raised saddle querns then each one is in use for nearly five hours. That works well with a large kitchen where most of the adults pop in here and there to take turns grinding (and also de-hulling).


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