3. Life Cycles of a Grinding Tool: between functional and codified practices

In early Neolithic contexts of the Paris Basin, grinding tools feature in a complex cycle of maintenance, use and reuse. The different stages of a grinding tool's life are conditioned by three main considerations: functional needs, cultural choices and symbolic treatments.

3.1 Maintenance

Due to their long use-life (Hayden 1987; Roux 1985), grinding stone tools require regular maintenance. The maintenance of grinding tools depends mainly on the type of rock. The speed of polish formation, the frequency of resharpening and the reduction in size of a tool depend also on the intensity and duration of use. Maintenance can be achieved by flaking the back, flanks and ends of grinding tools. Tool ends are also reshaped in order to avoid the creation of a deep concavity, which would reduce the degree of movement of the grinder on the quern. Working surfaces must be frequently repecked in order to maintain their abrasiveness and efficiency. Grinding tools are characterised by alternating periods of use and maintenance, which are essential for their effective functioning.

3.2 Reuse and recycling

The evidence for the reuse and recycling of grinding tools is far more complex. Patterns of recycling grinding tools are far from expedient or random. Firstly, grinding tool cycles of reuse depend on the distance between the villages and the raw material sources. The further the villages are from the raw material sources, the higher the recycling rate of querns and grinders. In addition, the cycles of reuse of querns and grinders do not follow exactly the same patterns.

The first level of reuse normally consists of a basic repecking of the quern or grinder's active surface in order to reuse it directly, without any reshaping. The quern can then be reused with a different grinder for the same purpose, or can be used with the same grinder for an alternative purpose.

The second level of reuse consists of reshaping the quern by flaking its sides and ends. The quern can then be reused for the same purpose. This is generally the case for tools used for cereal grinding, which can be rejuvenated several times in their life. But this rejuvenation is often the first stage in a change of use of the querns and grinders. A second reuse consists of the replacement of the back-and-forth movement of grinding by a circular one. This technical shift generally reflects a complete change of the quern's function. Querns that are no longer used in a back-and-forth movement for cereal grinding are more likely to be used to grind mineral material, using a circular or multidirectional movement. On Linearbandkeramik and Villeneuve-Saint-Germain sites of the Paris Basin, this stage involves the frequent reuse of fragmented querns, initially used for cereal grinding, in order to process mineral materials (16%) and for specialist ochre processing (Table 2).

Table 2: Functional attribution of a sample of 113 grinding tools from Linearbandkeramik and Villeneuve-Saint-Germain sites of the Paris Basin

 CerealsGrainsGlumesMineralSoft mineralHard animal matterUndeterminedTotal
Linearbandkeramik7 1 7 2 1- 1 19
Villeneuve-Saint-Germain14 27 26 8 4 10 5 94
Total 21 28 33 10 5 10 6 113

The third level consists of a complete transformation of a grinding tool's dimensions and morphology. The orientation and disposition of the working surface is often modified. This corresponds to a complete recycling of the tool's features and function. On Early Neolithic sites, several grinders (5%) were reused after reshaping in order to process hard animal and mineral material for food or craft activities (e.g. for ceramic temper), with a circular or multidirectional motion (Table 2).

The 'rules' of grinding tools' reuse and recycling seem completely independent from their domestic use and appear homogeneous from one site to another. This suggests a cultural impact in the management of blanks rather than an opportunistic reuse.

3.3 A systematic and codified breaking?

The disposal of grinding tools in the pits alongside the houses is not a fortuitous act. Apart from the normal breakage patterns seen often in disposal contexts, querns and grinders undergo specific treatments before their rejection. It is therefore difficult to decide whether these querns and grinders have been broken by accident or following long and intensive use.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Example of the deliberate breaking of a grinder on the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain site of Passy 'Sablonnière', Yonne. Notice the double fracture on its longitudinal and transversal axes

At first, the breakage of querns, and even more of grinders, follows specific patterns (Fig. 2). The grinders are systematically broken either transversely into two parts at approximately one-half of their length, or into three equal parts. Longitudinal fractures are located along the maximum of the grinders' length, and are most often transverse fractures. The breaking is generally the result of a single blow, but in some cases an irregular fracture is rectified by flaking. This indicates 'post-breaking' operations. It is also worth mentioning that refitting fragments from the same grinders are rare in comparison to the number of half-grinders found, and to the rate of refitting of other categories of objects. The missing half-grinders could have been taken away from the domestic area, or disposed of outside the village. In part this could be the result of the reuse of some of these half-grinders. However, the scarcity of finds suggests that they were discarded.

We need to consider the available evidence associated with the accidental and deliberate breakage of the tools. Such a pattern of deliberate breakage may form part of a ritual linked with food preparation; it could be similar to the more widespread practices and customs.


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Last updated: Wed Jul 1 2009