I thought it was about time I had a new header more appropriate for a historian. And since I enjoy collecting and dissecting pictures of people grinding grains, I’ve put up this engraving entitled “L’art du fair pain à l’âge de pierre” (The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age).
What’s so great about this engraving is that it is essentially right. It puts making bread, and that means grinding, right up front. Not farming, not the hard lot of those who worked the fields, but breadmaking and grinding.
Because when you think about it, no one would have bothered to farm cereals unless they had already discovered how to do something with those cereals. And cereals are beastly, recalcitrant things, covered with inedible coatings that have to be laboriously removed, and even then so hard and so small that working with them is onerous.
And unremitting because it has to be done every day. OK, OK, farming is hard, I don’t deny it, especially during sowing and harvest. But the labor lets up for long periods. Grinding doesn’t. Grains once ground go rancid fairly quickly because of the oil that is released. So grinding goes on day after day, season after season, year after year.
Yet the very features that made grains so difficult to turn into food, their hardness and dryness, made them easy to store and easy to transport. So it was grains, and pretty much grains alone, that could support cities and states.
In short, grinding was the necessary (though not the sufficient) condition for farming and for cities and for states.
So let’s look at the story behind this prescient illustration. In 1863, Louis Figuier, the Carl Sagan or Steve Gould of mid-nineteenth century science, had published La terre avant le deluge (The World Before the Deluge). In it he explained to his readers everything that geologists had discovered about the history of the earth from the very first fossils, through the vegetation of the Carboniferous, the dinosaurs, and early and very recent humans.
His illustrator, Édouard Riou, produced dramatic images. His engraving of the fight between an Iguanodon and Megalosaurus shaped the dinosaur fantasies of generations of children.
Indeed since Riou illustrated Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, he must have had quite an effect on the historical and geographical imagination of nineteenth century readers.
In Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge, he’d shown early man in an idyllic garden-of-eden type setting, living peaceably alongside the animals, before the Deluge, which many people were quick to associate with Noah’s Flood, swept across the earth.
The appearance of this idyllic picture of pre-deluge man in the 1863 edition of The World Before the Deluge was terrible timing. In the same year, the British geologist, Charles Lyell, who formerly had repudiated evolution, the Ice Ages, and a long prehistory of the human race, published The Antiquity of Man accepting evolution, the Ice Ages and the long history of man.
The long history of man (or humans as we would now say) was just being uncovered by the pioneers of archaeology. They labelled it the stone age and began dividing it up.
Figuier did a quick re-write and found another illustrator, Émile Bayard, to draw primitive, stone age (a new term then) humans. “The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age” appeared in the 1867 French and Catalan editions of The World Before the Deluge. (Interestingly the English translation stuck to the original illustrations). It also appeared three years later in L’Homme Primitif (Primitive Man).
So this image of stone age bread making is interesting as a very early attempt to show early humans as primitives who had evolved from animals. Clad in skins, herding cattle, goats, and improbably pigs, accompanied by a faithful dog, they are on the first step to becoming civilized. I see traces here of the old division of human history into savagery (hunting and gathering), pastoralism, farming, and civilization, a division that was canonized in the Scottish Enlightenment.
If so, we’ve got pastoralism and the transition to farming pictured here.
In the early twentieth century, the emphasis in archaeology shifted to farming. The term the Neolithic Revolution was coined in 1923 by the British archaeologist Gordon Childe. When and where did people begin farming became the hot topic. Why, less so.
But was there some golden moment in the nineteenth century, when the antiquarians and archaeologists realised that the big transition was the transition to grains (which meant pounding and grinding)? And that agriculture was an afterthought to that? And that this engraving records that moment.
I’d love to think so. But I suspect more important was that images of half naked women with swinging breasts kneeling over the grindstone made for much better sales that images of sweaty men bringing in the harvest.
And of course “The Art of Making Bread in the Stone Age” is pretty hopeless as a depiction of bread making. Although the grindstone with a skin spread underneath it is plausible, flour does not flow off the end in the way shown by the artist. It gets worse with the dough and the baking. The figure in the foreground, probably male, pours out dough to make thick pancakes or flatbreads when in fact if the dough could be poured, it would not make piles of flatbreads. And skewering them on a long stick and waving them over a fire as if making toast would not have cooked them through. Flatbreads would have been baked directly on the embers, in the ash, or on a bakestone heated in the fire.
So three questions.
1. Is there anything to my speculative history of archaeology? That is, to the idea that early archaeologist realized that understanding how people turned grains into food was absolutely necessary to understanding why they began to farm?
2. Do any of you know where Bayard got the inspiration for this particular image of grinding grain and making bread?
3. And do you have any other early images of grinding you’d like to share? (I have several that I will talk about later).
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