4. Grinding Tools: treatment and contextual information

Among the wide range of macrolithic tools found on Early Neolithic sites, grinding tools are among the most effective artefacts for showing the activities taking place in the domestic area, and more particularly for food preparation. If one considers the distribution of grinding tools in the pits along the side of the houses, it follows the same pattern as for other categories of artefact (Hamon 2006; Bostyn 2003; Hachem 2000, Simonin 1996). Shaping of querns and grinders has only taken place on a few sites. On the great majority of settlements, the absence of large flakes with remains of natural surfaces indicates that shaping the tools must have occurred either on the spot where the blank came from, or at an area outside the settlement. The concentrations of grinding tool finds are linked with the existence of side windows and doors.

Irrespective of the location of the pits, concentrations of querns and grinders can be observed in three different locations: at the back of the house, near the central part of the house, and near the main entrance of the house. These concentrations possibly reflect the location of grinding activities inside the house: in the back of the house, where special storage pits have been found, and at the front of the house, where sorting and winnowing would have required light, space and breeze.

4.1 Grinding tools in storage pits

The discovery of querns and grinders in these rubbish pits raises several questions. The deposition of querns in abandoned or empty storage pits is a particularly good example. There are several examples in the French Neolithic. On the Neolithic site of Aspre del Paradis (Pyréenées-Orientales), two storage pits were dated to the late Cardial/early Epicardial and to the Late Neolithic respectively (Manen et al. 2001). Together with ceramics and fauna, around ten grinding tools, including querns and grinders, were generally found broken. On the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain site of Gurgy 'les Grands Champs' (Yonne; Augereau et al. 2006), several grinding tools were also discovered in storage pits. In the first pit, twenty-five sandstone fragments were found, including six fragments of a single quern. In the second pit, a complete quern and two grinders were found; they had been burnt. The quern was located in a layer of charcoal and organic material.

For several reasons, the association of querns and storage pits is not so obvious and deserves to be discussed. If storage pits and querns are both dedicated to cereal production and treatment, no real functional relationship exists between them. While storage pits are associated with the final stage of cereal harvesting, querns are only used for the latest stage of food preparation. Storage pits and querns are not used simultaneously in the chaîne opératoire of grinding cereals. Besides, considering the spatial organisation of Neolithic activities, storage pits are generally located away from the domestic area in the villages, while querns are only found in rubbish pits next to the houses.

The technological and functional analysis of the grinding tools themselves show specific patterns. Querns are either burnt, or broken, and are generally found together with their corresponding grinders. In Gurgy 'les Grands Champs', the working surface of the quern is rather concave and well polished, despite the hardness of the granite used to make the quern (Augereau et al. 2006). The two grinders are made from ferrugineous and heterogeneous sandstone. Their working surfaces show evidence of coarse pecking, while some other surfaces are slightly polished. This kind of surface preparation would be more adapted to dehusking operations than to grinding ones (Fig. 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Characteristics of a quern and a grinder found in a storage pit on the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain site of Gurgy 'les Grands Champs', Yonne (after Augereau et al. 2006)

It is sometimes difficult to decide whether or not we should interpret these technological characteristics as the result of reuse of the querns during a secondary stage of cereal production. Considering that all these tools are burnt or broken, and are removed from their normal functional context, another hypothesis can be proposed. That is, they could have been burnt or broken in order to avoid any reuse or recycling, and to purify storage and food preparation implements. This kind of practice, known through ethnographic examples, generally occurs during times of disease or epidemics. But if this can explain the patterns for grinding tools, it does not explain their association with storage pits. Querns and grinders are not found in the normal position of primary use, and are generally destroyed. For these reasons, the association between querns and storage pits appears to be more symbolic than functional. This pattern could be linked to a cult dedicated to the agricultural way of life and to cereal preparation.

4.2 Funerary habits and social symbolism

The deposition of grinding tools in graves is a practice frequently observed throughout the Linearbandkeramik area (Spatz 1999). Querns and grinders are generally deposited under or next to the head or the feet of the dead. Grinding tools are often, but not exclusively, deposited in the graves of women and children. The tools are generally complete and in good condition. Very few cases of paired querns and grinders are known. This practice is widespread in Linearbandkeramik and post-Linearbandkeramik cemeteries, from central Europe to the left side of the Rhine (Farruggia 1992; Spatz 1999; Zapotocka 1972). However, such habits seem to have been more or less abandoned at the end of the Linearbandkeramik in the Paris Basin. Only one example of grinding tool deposition is known in the Aisne Valley, on the Linearbandkeramik site of Cuiry-lès-Chaudardes. Grave no. 461 is located adjacent to the wall of a small house, in the centre of the site (house no. 460), and was quite weathered. It has been dated to the Rubané récent du Bassin parisien (Thevenet 2005). In this grave, the body of a three-year-old child was lying on its left side (Fig. 4). It was completely covered with ochre. Three pots, two of which were decorated, were found, together with a fragment of blade, but the disposition of these artefacts suggests that they had certainly been deposited above the grave rather than with the body (Thevenet 2005).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Grave 461 of the Linearbandkeramik site of Cuiry-lès-Chaudardes 'les Fontinettes', Aisne (after Thevenet 2005).

At the feet of the child, a grinder was face-down. This grinder, of trapezoid shape and quadrangular section, is made of local quartzitic sandstone. One side is natural, two others are shaped by flaking and one is slightly broken. Two corners show traces of impact damage. The working surface is finely pecked and shows evidence of polishing. Despite concretions, no traces of colour grinding are visible. This tool has particularly small dimensions (1.5kg; 140x100x50mm) by comparison with what is generally found in Early Neolithic contexts of the Paris Basin (Hamon 2006). Considering the short dimensions and the shaping of the tool's back, this grinder must have been difficult to use, and it seems likely that a one-handed action was necessary.

Can we establish a link between the size of this grinder and the age of the buried child? It is doubtful that such a young child was involved in food preparation, and that the grinder was the child's 'property' or that the child was preferentially using this tool. We prefer a second explanation: that the deposition of a grinding tool symbolically linked this child to a group of cereal consumers, or to the whole community of Linearbandkeramik farmers.

4.3 Grinding tool hoards and symbolic identity

The association of grinding stones with new practices offers the best evidence for a genuine transformation in the symbolic and economic contexts. Known throughout the Linearbandkeramik, quern hoards are much more frequent in the Linearbandkeramik and the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain-Blicquy in the Paris Basin, as well as in Hainaut and Hesbaye in Belgium (Constantin et al. 1978; Hamon 2005; 2006; Jadin 2003). In these regions, the question of grinding tool hoards is particularly complex. Paired querns and grinders are arranged together in a circle or in a pile, their working surfaces generally facing the ground. They are placed mainly in the side pits or in isolated pits at the back of the houses (Fig. 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5: Example of the disposition of querns and grinders in the Linearbandkeramik hoard of Berry-au-bac 'le Vieux Tordoir', Aisne (photographs: ERA 12 - UMR 7041 ArScAn Protohistoire européenne du CNRS)

In most cases, only one hoard is found associated with each house. That is why they have been interpreted as temporary storage pits for the deposited querns. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that several hoards for querns and grinders were located inside the houses themselves, at the back of the building in a storage area. Such a concentration of querns and grinders could be explained in different ways. We cannot ignore the possibility that grinding cereals was a collective activity, women from different groups or houses meeting in the same place for the first stages of food preparation. It could also be the house of a craftsman, a specialist in quern manufacture and maintenance. These pits could also store a large number of unused querns, inherited or brought to the house by women who arrived as brides or widows, etc. However, these hypotheses are difficult to prove when more than one hoard per house is found. In Aubechies (Hainaut), up to three hoards are known from a single house. Such an association is all the more difficult to interpret as the high number of querns cannot correspond to the tools most likely to have been in use in this house. No direct link can be established between the querns found in these hoards and the activities of food preparation in the corresponding house. Finding so many querns together does not sufficiently explain the functional or technical meaning of these circumstances. Besides, these hoards are frequently located in re-excavated pits alongside the house.

These deliberate and voluntary acts of depositing querns and grinders could have a more symbolic and ritual meaning. These hoards suggest a link between the domestic area, cereal processing and the technical shift associated with the development of new grinding implements. The significance of this practice could be similar to the one suggested by the deposition of querns in storage pits and graves: the assertion of a Neolithic identity and of an agricultural way of life, as one of the basics of the Linearbandkeramik culture. Besides, the hoard phenomenon seems more or less contemporary with the gradual abandonment of the practice of depositing querns in graves. Even if not demonstrated at the time, we cannot exclude a shift in the symbolic meaning of grinding equipment from the funerary to the domestic context; from the world of the dead to the world of the living. The personal and individual significance of querns as grave goods could have been progressively or temporarily replaced by a more collective meaning, which may or may not have referred to the group, the inhabitants of the house, or a broader part of the community. This could explain the disappearance of querns deposited in graves, and the increasing numbers of quern hoards from the domestic area during the same period of time.


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