Student Voices

Travel Report: Laurie Darcus, Ethiopia

May 14, 2014
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Laurie Darcus, a Master's student in Archaeology, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in Ethiopia. Her report:

I travelled to conduct research on modern traditional grinding stones in northern Ethiopia, using an ethnoarchaeological approach to investigating this very important technology. Grinding stones, also known as saddle querns or mano/metates, have been in use by humans in food processing since the middle stone age (approx. 250,000 years ago). Grinding equipment technology is comprised of a basin-shaped or flat rectangular stone slab and smaller hand-held stones used most often to grind cereals into flour, but also have been used to reduce other food stuffs. It appears to be a simple instrument, but is actually a world-wide technology which has played a central role in the lives of women for millennia. Grinding stones have been found in archaeological contexts on all continents, except for Antarctica, and were a major factor in the day to day activities of subsistence for many cultures. In some remote areas, such as northern Ethiopia, these important tools are still in use, or have only recently been abandoned so the knowledge is still accessible. Mechanical mills were introduced into northern Ethiopia within the last two decades, so there are still people living who know how to make, use and discard grindingstones.

My research question is: How can the study of modern grindingstone technology contribute to our understanding of past cultures and to improving rural development schemes which aim to introduce electric/diesel flour mills to traditional farmers? This study has 3 objectives: 1) to document the production and life history of grindingstones in a traditional Ethiopian setting to aid in the interpretation of the archaeological record; 2) to understand the socio-economic significance of grindstones as they relate to subsistence and gender roles today and in the past. 3) to share this knowledge through journal publication

I travelled, with the aid of the Graduate International Research Travel Award, to the Tigrai region in northern Ethiopia where I interviewed and observed men and women consultants who manufactured and used traditional grinding stones. The ethnoarchaeology carried out in 2013 was a continuation of a study that began in 2012. The interviews and observations took place around the archaeological site of Mezber in 2012 and in 2013 the study moved to the villages near the archaeological site of Ona Adi. The goal this year was to complete enough interviews to determine if there were any major differences between these two areas, and to confirm any commonalities. In 2012 I was able to complete 35 interviews (ten men/twenty-five women) and in 2013 fifteen interviews were conducted (eight men/seven women) and it was determined that responses were similar to those from Mezber in 2012. Reaching the interview saturation point enabled opportunities to expand into observations of actual manufacture and use of modern grinding stones to aid in understanding the archaeological samples thus far recovered. Time was also available to document the physical properties of the Mezber grinding stone artifacts.

Three participant observation sessions were arranged. Observations of grinding processes, and interviewer attempts to participate in grinding, took place twice this field season, one at a village near Mezber, one at a village near Ona Adi (Figure 1). Both Tigrai women who demonstrated grinding were very experienced. One observation of a two day grinding stone manufacturing process in Dahane near Ona Adi was also accomplished (Figure 2). The male Tigrai consultants who manufactured the grinding stones were not experts, however they considered themselves knowledgeable in the making of grinding stones and two of the men had experience with masonry. A manufacturing process was also observed near Mezber in 2012 under the direction of two expert craftsman, providing an opportunity to note similarities and differences between these two areas of Tigrai and between experts and non-experts. Details of all sessions were recorded and documented to add to the understanding of the technical and social aspects of the manufacture and use of grinding stones.

It was important during this field season to record the gross morphology of the recovered archaeological grinding stones from Mezber. Over 120 grinding stone artifacts were examined for attributes such as: size, shape (overall shape and shape of use surface(s)), wear patterns and intensity of use. Microscopic images of use surfaces were digitally recorded and initial analysis of wear type (abrasion, rounding, chipping, etc.) was documented. Photographs were taken of the surfaces of each artifact.

As in 2012, this year the interview consultants have again indicated that the grindingstone tradition is “breaking down”, or has been completely abandoned with the introduction of the electric mills, thus confirming the need to document this knowledge now.

I appreciate the financial assistance I was granted through the GIRTA which allowed me to complete the research for my MA Thesis.

Grinding Session

Manufacturing Session

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