Find of the week: A handmill from Keem
The many visitors who stroll up past our excavation at Keem Bay all inevitably ask the same question: ‘have you found anything?’ I’m never entirely sure how to respond. For most of us archaeologists the site is the find. The artefacts we carefully retrieve from the small demolished dwelling we’re excavating are not treasures to be sifted from the muck but tiny clues that help us piece together an understanding of life at pre-Famine Keem. They only make sense when we know exactly where they came from. A large proportion of the objects we’ve found at Keem since our work began in 2009 are sherds of pottery: white, blue, yellow, and brown glazed plates, jugs, and crocks. I love this pottery, but one my favourite artefacts so far is somewhat less glamorous. It’s a small lump of stone about 14cm by 16cm that I spotted in the upper layers of rubble at the site this week. I noticed the stone because of its rich purplish colour, and once I picked it up its smooth flat underside told me immediately what it was. The stone is a fragment of a rotary quern or handmill used for manually grinding grain.
Rotary querns were used in Ireland from the Iron Age, and they are often associated with the early medieval period. Many people are surprised to hear that querns were used well into the 19th century in rural Ireland. The Schools’ Folklore Collection contains many memories of the use of querns like the example below from Co. Dongeal.
Long ago all the bread used in the homes was home-made bread. Shop bread was almost unknown. The chief kinds of break used long ago was [sic] oat bread, potato bread, and boxty. The farmers in those days grew wheat, barley, and oats, and ground the corn on a mill-stove or a quern. None of these are to be found nowadays. Later large mills were erected throughout the country were [sic] the farmers brought the grain to be milled. Nora Martin, Clarcam, Co. Donegal (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1035, Page 348).
Rotary querns could be used in the home to grind corn of different types for use in bread or for porridge type dishes. The quern was made up of two discs of stone. The upper disc was turned in a circular motion with a wooden handle and the grain was crushed between the two stones as it moved. You can see a contemporary drawing (c.1870) of a rotary quern in action from the Illustrated London News below.
Another detailed 19th century account of the use of rotary querns comes from the Halls’ travelogue of Ireland published in three volumes in the 1840s:
O’Sullivan, M. and Downey L. 2006. Quern Stones. Archaeology Ireland, 20 (2), 22-25.