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Pestles and mortars in ancient Egypt

Goddess Mut, Luxor, Food offering

I have a small pestle and mortar that some kind person bought me for a birthday or Christmas. It’s one of my kitchen implements that I’m particularly attached to. My parents pestle has a wooden handle which doesn’t feel as smooth in my hand. Its end is narrower and handle longer. I like mine better.

Occasionally someone makes fun of my pestle and mortar, implying that it’s an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of space. Like it matters how often I grind spices?

Unlike my pestle and mortar, the ancient Egyptian tools were more vital for daily life. While grain was ground into flour on a saddle quern (rotary querns were first introduced in the late or Ptolemaic period) there was a vital step before milling. The husks of the grain had to be removed, and this was most likely done using a pestle and mortar. A helpful splash of water prevented everything leaping out of the mortar as soon as you started pounding. I might actually try this next time I am grinding spices.

The town of Amarna was where 18th dynasty king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV or, in greek, Amenophis IV) attempted to build his new capital city of Akhetaten. Whilst Akhenaten had some wacky theological and aesthetic ideas, notably manipulating the human figure and annihilating most of the gods, we can probably assume that the baking techniques of the villagers remained unchanged. Here, in the ancient police barracks, and in house 6 of Main Street in the same ancient Egyptian town, small wooden club-like tools were discovered and have been categorised as pestles by clever Egyptologists. They’re just under 10cm in length. A limestone mortar in the corner of a house on West Street, with a rim built of mud and mud brick, alludes to more of the story. As does another on East Street, and another in the servants quarters of a house identified only by a number.

Other such pestles and mortars have been located at the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina where from the early New Kingdom the tomb artisans lived.

The pestle and mortar may well have also been used to extract oil from seeds, tubers or fruit. As it was crushed into a pulp, oil would be released. Consider the process of crushing olives to make olive oil. However, whilst the ancient Egyptians were keen to build little model granaries, and carve detailed baking scenes in their tombs, they’ve demonstrated little enthusiasm for depicting the oil making process. What oils they actually used remains a mystery.

I took the picture above in Luxor Temple last January. It depicts a king, I don’t know which, making an offering to the Goddess Mut. I’m sure the offering table includes something created with a pestle and mortar.

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