The Historic Environment Image Researcher, Dr Janice Kinory, has been thinking about a particular image…

‘As a guest blogger, I’d like to use this venue to write about how old images in the HEIR Project collection can provide a fresh perspective on things we think we know as archaeologists.

I first learned about the innovative Roman rotary quern from text books. Having excavated at several Roman sites I have even found bits of rotary querns. I’ve seen complete rotary querns in museum showcases. I even had a fully developed mental model of the use of this implement, envisioning it being used by a solitary individual, possibly a slave, working indoors, grinding grain. In short, I thought I “knew” about rotary querns.

HMC: Palestine: "HOLY LAND."   "28. Women Grinding."

This image, showing a scene from 1930s Palestine, hit me like a thunderbolt for several reasons. Clearly, the presence of the working rotary quern at that date was the first shock, making me think of the Monty Python movie “The Life of Brian,” in which the question what have the Romans done for us is answered at length; the quern clearly needed to be added to that list.

The second thought was that grinding was shown as a social activity, with the two women, possibly a mother and daughter, sharing the work, each with a hand on the wooden drive handle. My third insight was that the work was clearly being performed outdoors, which undoubtedly minimised the inhalation of flour dust.

Most importantly, though, was my final thought: the recognition of the organic mat and cloth beneath the quern on which to gather the flour being produced. I’d never thought about needing a containment mechanism for the flour. I had virtually no chance of finding an organic mat of any type with a quern fragment in an archaeological context and had never seen one included in a museum display beneath a quern. This was, as they say, a paradigm-shifting moment for me.

This image came from the collection of Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford. It was part of their collection of pictures from the Holy Land, with many of the pictures in that group showing sites associated with Christianity. Some, such as this one, focus on the people living in that region in the early to mid-20th century.

The picture leaves many questions unanswered; we do not know whether or not the photographer was aware that the grinding process dated back to the Roman period, nor do we know whether this was an illustration of contemporary 1930’s life or a staged representation of how things were done when the older woman was a child. Was this an activity for the household, or was the grain being ground in sufficient quantity so as to produce a saleable surplus, generating cash income? The longer one stares at the picture, the more questions come to mind.

With almost 10,000 images already available, I believe that the HEIR Project images have the potential to shift many paradigms. I would love to hear from those who read our blog with their thoughts about this picture.’

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About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
This entry was posted in HEIR, Lantern Slides, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to

  1. Katy says:

    Also interesting to see the edges of baskets in the very bottom of the image; the grain to be ground needs to brought in from somewhere. Is it from a family harvest and storage, to last the year before next harvest? Or bought each week or month? Like a chaine operatoire of bread-making.

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