Traditionally, biblical archaeology was concerned with “proving” that events in the Bible really happened. More recently, influences from other branches of archaeology have broadened that concern to more objective and universal matters. We sometimes forget that most of the Israelites were not prophets, priests, or kings, but ordinary people, sometimes living (and dying) in extraordinary times. As a Fellow at the Skirball Museum this year, tasked with updating the archeology display, I’m professionally interested in what these ordinary folk left behind.
Paired grinding stones like these are found in archaeological sites all over the world. As an undergraduate student, I dug two broken sets of these out of a pit-house on an extinct volcano in Arizona. In the southwestern states and Meso-America, these are called mano (“hand”) and metate (slab). These would have been used for maize. However, in ancient Israel they were mainly for wheat and barley.
In those times, Shavuot was a festival concluding the spring grain harvest, the reaping of the winter wheat crop, and presentation of the First Fruits to the Temple. In the Diaspora, this was commemorated through eating fine foods made from grain, such as cheese blintzes. For most of these Shavuot foods, the wheat must first be ground into flour. During most of the age of the Tanakh (“Old Testament”), archaeologists are fairly sure that the wheel-shaped mill stones operated by muscle-power were not available. Therefore, grinding flour or meal was done by hand. Such labor was probably daily activity for the women of an Iron Age (1200-586 BCE) household.
For all our talk about the land of Israel, we do not always think about the physical land itself. Israel has a fascinating geology, which colors many biblical and ancient accounts. The far northeast of Israel - the Golan Heights - is built on basalt, left over from ancient volcanic eruptions. That basalt is a common building stone in the area, as well as the probable source of these stones. The many irregular holes in the stone functioned as grinding surfaces. By pushing down on the hand-stone and then away from the user, the kernels of grain would be crushed. The edges of the holes crush grain into a coarse meal, while finer flour would collect in the bottom of the holes. There are at least two references to this type of tool in the Bible: Numbers 11:8 (a description of manna) and Judges 9:53 (the death of Abimelech, son of Gideon).
Today, we buy our bread already baked, or buy pre-milled flour. If we grind anything in our life, it is probably the beans for our morning coffee. The fine metal burrs reduce the aromatic beans to the exact size of our preference, with no grit from the machine contaminating our brew. These stone grinders tell another story - the act of grinding meal would break off tiny flecks of stone into the flour, and eventually into the bread. We know this both from experimentation and observation of ancient teeth, which are almost always extremely worn down. This would have left many people in biblical times with toothaches and similar ailments. Perhaps our dentists are the only ones who would appreciate a return to such practices!