Zaid Hailu grinds flour with grinding stones. Photo credit: Laurie Nixon-Darcus

These Ethiopian villagers know where their flour comes from; do you?

March 20, 2021

Globally, flour has been one of the most important food staples for thousands of years and yet we take it for granted. As you bite into your sourdough, cake, or favourite pasta dish this World Flour Day, Archaeology PhD Candidate Laurie Nixon-Darcus wants you to take a moment to honour the ancient techniques used in manufacturing grinding stones and those who mastered them.  Afterall, these grinding stones turned wheat into flour and introduced flour into our diet.

Laurie is an ethnoarchaeologist who gathers information from living cultures to understand patterns found at archaeological sites. At a site in Tigrai, a village in Northern Ethiopia, archaeologists uncovered grinding stones dating back 3,500 years.  As part of her PhD research, Laurie met with a small but revered group of village men who painstakingly craft grinding stones using traditional methods passed down from generations. She also talked to women who spend up to six hours every two days using the grinding stones to make flour. What she learned might surprise you.

Haleka Techwoelde Brahn Beyene trims large flakes of stone. Photo credit: Laurie Nixon-Darcus

Laurie details these findings (Men at work: Grinding stone production by the experts and others in northern Ethiopia) in the Journal of Lithic Studies.  She shares how villagers described grinding stones as “necessary for life” because flour represents the greatest contribution to local diets.

Through the ethnoarchaeology interviews and observations, Laurie documents the laborious and complicated process in manufacturing grinding stones. It requires complex design decisions on how to break and shape the boulders into usable tools. Women who will use these tools also advise on individual design preferences. Manufacturing requires 14 hours of heavy labour in addition to special skills and knowledge of how stone reacts to different hammer blows and chisel work. Documenting the manufacturing processes and associated socio-economic interrelationships was urgent because few experts remain in this region as more people turn to accessing modern mechanical mills for grinding.

Men transport stone back to village. Photo credit: Laurie Nixon-Darcus

In late 2020, the Tigrai region began experiencing numerous power outages and broken supply chains due to political unrest. Subsequently, families are forced to return to grinding their own flour which further underscores the importance of documenting this dying trade. 

So, let's pause, enjoy that bit of bread and celebrate these unsung heroes whose artisanal techniques have been feeding generations both past and present.

Laurie is part of Professor Catherine D’Andrea’s Research Team who focus on ethnoarchaeology, cereal domestication, traditional agricultural knowledge, early complex societies and African archaeology.