Sometimes the most mundane things can turn out to be extraordinary. Take the humble quern stone – on 1st November 2007 we were treated to a fascinating talk by John Cruse, co-ordinator of the Yorkshire Archaeology Society’s Yorkshire Quern Survey.
He brought along two fine examples of quern stones – one an Iron Age beehive type, the other a Roman lava stone flat quern. Focusing upon the indigenous Iron Age beehive type, John built his talk upon a wealth of information and data gathered by the Yorkshire Querns Survey to demonstrate how important they are to archaeology in our region. In the absence of late prehistoric pottery, mosaics and coins, which are very scarce in Northern England outside the Roman centres, we have few artefacts emerging from excavations of late prehistoric sites. It is therefore the quern stone to which we must turn as the key to investigating the late prehistory of Yorkshire.
In the 1950s and 1960s Sidney Jackson raised awareness of the potential of studying querns in Yorkshire, and the YAS’s Yorkshire Querns Survey has continued to promote interest in them. In 1946 only 54 quern stones had been recorded in Yorkshire – now there are over 2,000 known examples, and more are being found all the time. This has meant that where fragments of querns were previously discarded and ignored, they are now appreciated as important artefacts and carefully recorded.
Aspects of the quern which John revealed to us included the sourcing of the stone and typology, which may or may not be related to chronology, or even perhaps tribal or cultural differences. The variation in shapes, even of the beehive type, is wide. Interestingly, it would appear that the quarries generally provided rough-outs rather than the finished article. Comparing stones found in known quarries to those found on archaeological sites (or as garden ornaments and parts of drystone walls!) it was for individuals to finish them off by cutting out the hoppers for the grain feed, drilling the holes in the sides and inserting the handles. The distribution patterns of different types of quern stones – in terms of typology and the type of stone used – reveals an interesting correspondence with areas of arable land as well as river valleys and prehistoric trackways which may give some clues to local settlement, economic, communication and trading routes, and by implication, even to political boundaries between different communities. The distribution of beehive querns is fairly even across the Dales, except for a heavier concentration in Lower Wharfedale. Why this may be is still a matter of conjecture, like so many other aspects of the study of quern stones.
John’s observations of how quern stones are used today in Mexico led to questions of the social aspects of the use of quern stones, and how important they could have been as a focus for social and cultural interaction especially for women, in late prehistoric society. The stones may well have been the most important possession a woman had, and was, of course, vital for the provision of food to the community. This could well have given them a symbolic as well as utilitarian function.
The most intriguing aspect of quern stones was the universal practice of deliberately destroying each stone’s functional purpose at the end of its life, often before the resulting fragments were recycled as building materials or deposited in open fields. Was this because of their unique association with an individual woman? It is tempting to conclude that the quern stone was explicitly linked to her and her life, perhaps as part of her dowry or status as a married woman, and was therefore ritually destroyed on her death.
After the discovery of 7 fragments of an impressive, and relatively rare type of quern stone at our Chapel House wood dig in 2003, the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group adopted the quern stone as our logo. John’s enthusiastic and fascinating talk has made us even more proud of our logo – and our quern stone – than ever before.
Jane Lunnon (UWHG Archivist)