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Mills That Put Bread on the Table

Mills That Put Bread on the Table

 Mills That Put Bread on the Table

IT HAS been referred to as “the staff of life,” “the chief of all foods,” “man’s constant mainstay and support from time immemorial.” Yes, from antiquity, bread has been a staple food. In fact, one of man’s most pressing needs has been that of procuring his daily bread.

The basic ingredient of bread is flour, or meal, obtained by the grinding of cereals. Milling, then, is an ancient art. Without the convenience of machinery, what a laborious task it must have been to reduce grain to flour! In Bible times, the sound of the hand mill was associated with normal, peaceful conditions, and its absence indicated desolation.​—Jeremiah 25:10, 11.

What has milling involved through the ages? What are some of the methods and devices that have been used to accomplish it? And what kind of mills put bread on your table today?

Why the Need?

To the first human pair, Adam and Eve, Jehovah said: “Here I have given to you all vegetation bearing seed which is on the surface of the whole earth and every tree on which there is the fruit of a tree bearing seed. To you let it serve as food.” (Genesis 1:29) Among the foods Jehovah God gave to mankind were seed from the stalks of cereal grasses. This source of food was essential for man’s existence, since all cereals​—including wheat, barley, rye, oats, rice, millet, sorghum, and maize—​contain starchy carbohydrates that the body is capable of transforming into its principal fuel​—glucose.

Man, though, is not equipped to digest whole, raw cereals. For humans, they are easier to consume when reduced to flour and then cooked. The simplest ways of converting a quantity of grain to flour are by pounding it in a mortar, crushing it between two stones, or using a combination of both.

Mills Powered by Human Muscles

Statuettes from ancient Egyptian tombs illustrate the use of one early type of grain mill, the saddle quern. It was so named because it resembles a saddle in shape. This mill consisted of two stones​—a slightly concave and sloping stone was on the bottom, and a smaller stone was on the top. The worker​—usually a woman—​knelt behind the device and grasped the upper stone with both hands. She then placed the full weight of her upper body on it and moved the upper stone back and forth on the lower stone, crushing the grain between the two stones. What a simple but effective device!

 However, hours spent kneeling took their toll. Pushing the upper stone to the far end of the quern and pulling it back again put constant strain on the back, arms, thighs, knees, and toes of the worker. Studies of bone abnormalities in skeletons from ancient Syria have led paleontologists to conclude that operating similar querns caused young women repetitive stress injuries​—notched kneecaps, damage to the last dorsal vertebra, and severe osteoarthritis in the big toe. In ancient Egypt, operating the hand mill seems to have been the lot of maidservants. (Exodus 11:5) * Some scholars believe that when the Israelites left Egypt, the saddle quern was the kind of mill they took with them.

Later refinements to milling devices included grooving on both stones to improve efficiency. Introducing a funnel-shaped opening in the upper stone enabled the operator to load it with grain, which flowed automatically between the stones. In the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., Greece saw the creation of a rudimentary milling machine. A horizontal handle, or lever, pivoted at one end, was attached to the upper stone. Moving the free end of this lever back and forth in a short arc caused the hopper-fed upper stone to rub against the lower stone.

All the aforementioned mills had a serious limitation. They depended on a back-and-forth movement that no animal could be trained to perform. Hence, these mills had to rely on human muscle power. Then along came new technology​—the rotary mill. Animals could now be used.

Rotary Mills Make the Task Easier

Although sources vary, the rotary grain mill may have been invented in the Mediterranean basin about the second century B.C.E. By the first century C.E., Jews in Palestine were familiar with such a mill, for Jesus spoke of “a millstone such as is turned by an ass.”​—Mark 9:42.

The animal-powered mill was used in Rome and much of the Roman Empire. Many such mills still stand in Pompeii. They consist of a heavy hourglass-shaped upper stone that acted as a hopper and a conical lower stone. As the upper stone rotated on the lower stone, kernels of grain were fed between the two and were pulverized. Existing upper stones of this type vary in size from about 18 to 36 inches [45-90 cm] in diameter. These mills were as much as six feet [180 cm] high.

Whether lighter rotary mills developed from animal mills or vice versa is not clear. In any case, the rotary hand mill had the advantage of being portable and easy to use. It consisted of two circular stones perhaps 12 to 24 inches [30-60 cm] in diameter. The top of the lower stone was slightly convex and the lower face of the upper stone slightly concave so as to fit the convex lower stone. The upper stone rested on a central pivot and was turned by a wooden handle. Typically, two women sat facing each other, each placing one hand on the handle to turn the upper stone. (Luke 17:35) With her free hand, one of the women fed grain in small amounts into the filler hole of the upper stone, and the other woman gathered the flour as it poured from the  rim of the mill into a tray or cloth spread beneath it. This type of mill met the needs of soldiers, mariners, or small households living far from milling establishments.

Driven by Water or Wind

About 27 B.C.E., the Roman engineer Vitruvius gave a description of a water mill of his time. Flowing water pushed against the paddles of a vertical wheel fixed to a horizontal axle, causing the wheel to turn. Gears transferred this motion to a vertical shaft. The shaft, in turn, drove a large upper millstone.

How did the output of the water mill compare with that of other mills? Hand mills are estimated to have ground less than 20 pounds [10 kg] of grain per hour, and the most efficient animal mills, up to 100 pounds [50 kg]. Vitruvius’ water mill, on the other hand, could grind some 300 to 400 pounds [150-200 kg] per hour. With innumerable variations and improvements, the basic principle described by Vitruvius continued to be used by capable millwrights for centuries thereafter.

Flowing water was not the only source of natural energy used to power millstones. If waterwheels were replaced by the sails of a windmill, the same objective could be achieved. Windmills came into use in Europe probably in the 12th century C.E. and were used widely for milling in Belgium, Germany, Holland, and elsewhere. They were in operation until mills driven by steam and other sources of energy gradually made all other power sources obsolete.

“Our Bread for This Day”

Despite progress, many milling methods of the past survive in one part of the earth or another. Mortar and pestle are still employed in parts of Africa and Oceania. In Mexico and Central America, saddle querns are used to grind maize for tortillas. And a number of water mills and windmills are still in operation here and there.

Most flour used for breadmaking in the developed world today, however, is produced in fully mechanized and completely automated roller mills. Grain kernels are gradually reduced to flour as they undergo successive grindings between pairs of steel cylinders with grooved surfaces revolving at different speeds. This system makes it possible to produce various grades of flour at low cost.

Obtaining flour for baking is doubtless no longer the toil it once was. Yet, we can be grateful to our Creator for giving us both grain and the ingenuity to transform it into “our bread for this day.”​—Matthew 6:11.


^ par. 10 In Bible times, captured enemies, such as Samson and other Israelites, were put to work at milling. (Judges 16:21; Lamentations 5:13) Free women ground the grain for their own households.​—Job 31:10.

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Egyptian saddle quern

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Soprintendenza Archeologica per la Toscana, Firenze

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In an animal-driven mill, olives were pressed for oil

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From the Self-Pronouncing Edition of the Holy Bible, containing the King James and the Revised versions