African Archaeological Review

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 193–223 | Cite as

Necessary for Life: Studies of Ancient and Modern Grinding Stones in Highland Ethiopia

  • L. Nixon-DarcusEmail author
  • A.C. D’Andrea
Original Article


Ethnoarchaeological research combined with morphological analysis of modern and ancient grinding stones was completed in 2013 and 2014 as part of the Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project (ETAP), based in the Gulo Makeda region of northern Ethiopia. Research focused on investigating the cultural context of grinding, grinding stone morphology, and use-surface area employing low power use-wear analysis of grinding surfaces. In the Gulo Makeda region today, men manufacture grinding stones and women use them in food processing for many hours per day. While grinding, relationships are formed and maintained with other women, and archaeological evidence suggests that women were grinding together in the past. It was discovered through interviews that distinctive grinding surfaces are preferred for processing different cereals based on grain size. Rough surfaces are used to process larger grains such as imported Near Eastern barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum spp.), maize (Zea mays), and the African domesticate sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), while fine/smooth surfaces are used for smaller, locally domesticated African grains including finger millet (Eleusine coracana) and t’ef (Eragrostis tef). Comparing ethnoarchaeological data with evidence of different use-surfaces on ancient Mezber grinding stones suggests that both locally domesticated and imported grains have been processed in the region for thousands of years. Interpretations are made about the use of grinding stones in the past through analogy, supported by evidence of ancient stone tool morphology and surface wear. The archaeological record at the pre-Aksumite site of Mezber indicates that grinding stone sizes have changed through time, with larger grinding surface areas likely reflecting the need for the production of greater amounts of flour.


Grinding stones Ethnoarchaeology Archaeology Mezber Gulo-Makeda Tigrai Ethiopia 


La recherche ethno-archéologique et l’analyse morphologique des meules modernes et anciennes furent complétées en 2013 et 2014 dans le cadre du projet Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project (ETAP) dans la région du Gulo Makeda au nord de l’Ethiopie. La recherche était centré sur l’étude du contexte culturel de la mouture, de la morphologie des meules, et de leur surface d’utilisation, en employant l’analyse par microscope de l’usure des surfaces de mouture. Aujourd’hui, dans la région du Gulo Makeda, les hommes fabriquent les meules, et les femmes les utilisent pendant plusieurs heures chaque jour pour la transformation alimentaire. Lors de la mouture, les relations sont formées et entretenues entre femmes, et la preuve archéologique nous suggère que dans le temps les femmes moulaient ensemble. A partir d’entretiens, il fut découvert que, selon la taille des grains, on préfère des meules distinctes pour la préparation de différentes céréales. On utilise des surfaces rugueuses dans le traitement des céréales plus larges, tels que l’orge (Hordeum vulgare) importée du Proche-Orient, le blé (Triticum spp.) et le blé d’Inde (Zea mays) importés, et le sorgho (Sorghum bicolor) de l’Afrique-même, tandis que les surfaces lisses sont employées pour les plus petites céréales africaines domestiquées localement, tels que l’éleusine (Eleusine coracana) et le teff (Eragrostis tef). Les traces archéologiques au site pré-aksoumite de Mezber indiquent que les tailles des meules ont changé avec le temps, pour des surfaces de mouture plus grandes reflétant le besoin d’une production augmentée de farine. La comparaison des données ethno-archéologiques et des indices de surfaces différentes des meules anciennes de Mezber nous suggère que les céréales domestiquées localement et les céréales importées furent préparées dans la région pendant des millénaires. Les interprétations de l’usage des meules dans le temps sont faites par analogie et sont soutenues par la preuve de la morphologie des meules anciennes et de l’usure de leurs surfaces.



Our greatest thanks go to the residents of Gulo Makeda who welcomed us into their communities and shared their knowledge, expertise, and memories. We would especially like to acknowledge the elders who participated in our workshop, identifying, and commenting on artifacts: Waizoro Zaid Mahray, Haleka Tehwoelde Brahn Beyene, Waizoro Nigisti Hagos, Haleka Gebreselassie Gebreyesus, Waizoro Medhin Abade, Ato Hailu Hagos, and Ato Mebratu Areyhu. We also would like to thank the landowner of Mezber, Waizoro Medhin Abade, for permission to carry out excavations over successive years. We benefited greatly by the participation of our interpreters, Yemane Meresa and Habtamu Mekonnen, who deserve special recognition for their contribution to this research. Without their understanding of the language and customs, we would not have succeeded in obtaining the information needed. Transliterations for many Tigrinya terms were provided by Professor Yaqob Beyene, Department of Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean, University of Naples, and additional Tigrinya terms were translated by Yemane Meresa. Many thanks to the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), especially Ato Desalgen Daad, as well as the Tigrai Agency for Tourism and Ato Kebede Amare, for support in gaining governmental permissions. We are grateful to Shannon Wood for completing Figs. 2 and 3 and Lynn Welton who produced Figs. 4, 5, and 20. Our paper was significantly improved by acting on insightful comments and recommendations made by two anonymous reviewers. Several agencies provided funding for this research including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through a Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS Master’s Scholarship, Standard Research Grant No. 410-2011-1646 and Insight Grant No. 435-2014-0182. Support from Simon Fraser University includes the Provost Prize of Distinction, Graduate Fellowships, and Graduate International Research Travel Award.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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