Tag Archives: grain

The Mill at Atholl

The historic watermill at Blair Atholl. Absence of corn growing in the surrounding area today. Extensive field systems and enclosed land in the mid 1700s. Andrew Wights 1780s descriptions of innovation, enterprise and crop diversification. Part of a Living Field series on old corn mills.

The watermill at Atholl [1] offers a welcoming break to journeys along the A9 road, offering – in addition to the working mill – coffee and freshly baked bread from a variety of grains. In 2017, the mill and its bakers gained some deserved exposure on a BBC2 television programme, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, presented by Nadiya Hussain [1].

The remaining corn mills in the north of Britain tell much about the phasing in and out of local corn production over the last few centuries. The Living Field’s interest in this case lies in the mill’s history and location, being a substantial building but presently in an area that has no local corn production. In this, it differs from Barony Mills in Orkney which lies within an area of barley cultivation that still supplies the mill [2].

The images above show the water wheel fed by a lode that runs from the river Tilt to the north, the main grinding wheel (covered, top l), hoppers feeding the wheel and an old mill wheel. The watermill’s web site [1] and the explanation boards in the mill itself describe the history of the building and workings of the machinery.

The Atholl watermill was a substantial investment, but what strikes today is the absence of corn-growing (arable) land in the area. When visited in 2017, very few fields were cultivated.

What do the historical maps tell us?

The information inside the mill states that it was present at the time of Timothy Pont’s map of the 1590s [3]. It is there on his map, just south of ‘Blair Castel’. But Roy’s Military Survey [4] of the mid-1700s gives the best indication of the possible extent of cropped land in the area. Features on the Roy map (copied below) include ‘Blair Kirk’ (church) which still stands at what is now known as Old Blair and ‘Tilt Bridge’ on the road that ran north of the Garry; then areas of enclosed land or parkland, bounded by tree lines; and the Mill, shown within the white circle in the upper map, with its lode clearly leaving the River Tilt to the north and flowing past the mill to enter the River Garry upstream of where the Tilt joins it.

The Roy Map shows what appear be clusters of field systems on both sides of the Garry, depicted by short parallel lines suggesting rigs, some indicated by white arrows on the upper map. The lower map has been displaced to show more field systems around Aldclune.

Later, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882, the village of ‘Blair Athole’ has started to take shape, the corn mill is marked being fed by a Mill Lead originating at a sluice off the River Tilt. Later still, the Land Utilisation Survey 1931-1935 shows arable land remaining, consistent with the location of many of the field systems on Roy’s map.

Therefore crops, and they must have included corn, whether oat or barley, were grown in the region and presumably fed the mill, but more information on what was grown was reported by Andrew Wight, travelling 30 years or so after Roy.

Andrew Wight’s survey of 1784

Mr Wight’s surveys of agriculture in Scotland in the 1770s and 1780s again provide rare and sometimes surprising insights. He meets and reports on mainly the improvers, the landowners and their major tenants, less so the householder and small grower. Yet he was there at a crucial time in the development of food production and able to present a unique and consistent account throughout mainland Scotland.

Part way through his fourth survey [6], he spent the night in Dalwhinnie, then on travelling south towards lowland Perthshire, he stopped at Dalnacardoch, commenting that the innkeeper was a ‘spirited and enterprising’ farmer. There he reports a “clover field, dressed to perfection; an extraordinary sight in this barren country” and also “turnips in drills in perfect good order, pease broadcast, bear and oats with grass-seeds”, and notes ‘great crops of potato are raised here’. [Ed: bere is a landrace of barley.]

On ‘Athol House’ (near the mill) he concentrates on the animals, various breeds and hybrids of cattle, and also sheep; but on the tilled land, he writes the “Duke’s farm is about 700 acres arable; of which not more than 120 are in tillage, the rest being hay or pasture.” The rotation is “turnip broadcast, barley, oats and turnip again”. So corn crops – barley and oats – occupied 2/3 of the 120 acres, equivalent to 80 acres or 32 hectares (abbreviated to ha, 1 acre = 0.405 ha). It is uncertain what this land yielded at that time, but assuming it was 1 t/ha or one-fifth of todays typical spring cereal harvest, then that’s 30 tonnes of corn annually. By itself it does not seem enough for such a big mill.

Again, it is unclear whether tenants and crofters are included in the stated area, but they were probably not. For example, later he mentions tenants, including the innkeeper and farmer at ‘Blair of Athol’ who grew corn for his own local consumption. The extent of other corn land cultivated by small tenants, for example, on the field systems shown in the maps above, is not mentioned.

Mr Wight continues in his appreciation of the standards as he moves south, finding after Killicrankie and towards Faskally, an enchantment of orderly farmland. On the road south to Dunkeld, he writes ‘hills on every side, some covered with flocks, some with trees and small plantations, mixed with spots of corn scattered here and there; and beautiful haughs variegated with flax, corn and grass.’

Driving along the A9 road today, the land flanking the Garry seems impoverished and the climate inhospitable for crops, but Wight presents an entirely different view: innovation, improvement, and diversity of plant and animal husbandry. As in many upland areas, the land reverted to poor pasture, in some instances as recently as the 1980s. Why? Higher costs of growing crops, low profit margins, easier alternatives based on better transport connections and ready imports of cereal carbs.

Sources, links

[1] Blair Atholl Watermill and tearoom. Location shown on map, right. http://blairathollwatermill.co.uk (check web site for opening). The mill and its bakers were featured in 2017 on BBC2’s Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.

[2] Living Field articles on water-driven corn mills: 1) Shetland’s horizontal water mills and 2) Landrace 1 – bere (Barony Mills, Orkney).

[3] Pont maps of Scotland ca. 1583-1614, by Timothy Pont http://maps.nls.uk/pont/index.html

[4] Roy Military Survey of Scotland 1747-1755 http://maps.nls.uk/roy/ The web site of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) allows educational and not-for-profit use: acknowledgement given on the map legend.

[5] Land Utilisation Survey Scotland 1931-1935. “The first systematic and comprehensive depiction of the land cover and use in Scotland under the supervision of L. Dudley Stamp” http://maps.nls.uk/series/land-utilisation-survey/ See also
https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm

[6] Wight, Andrew. 1784. Present state of husbandry in Scotland Volume IV, part I. Edinburgh: William Creech. The sights noted above, between Dalwinnie and Dunkeld, are described at pages154-165. [Available online, search for author and title.] Other reports of Mr Wight’s journeys are given on this site at Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

 

 

Corn grain bread bannocks

A Living Field exhibit at Open Farm Sunday this year on 7 June 2015 10 am to 4 pm at the James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee.

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Plant to plate: see and touch corn (cereal) plants, ancient and modern; have a go at threshing; try hand-grinding grain; see bread, biscuits and bannocks made from bere (an old Scottish barley landrace), rye, spelt and oat.

Images above show (top) ripening ‘ears’ of emmer wheat grown in the Living Field garden, a bag of oat grain and the Living Field’s rotary quern for grinding grain into meal

Contact: gillian.banks@hutton.ac.uk.

 

 

Feeding the Romans

Thoughts on a visit to the exhibition Roman Empire – Power and People McManus Dundee, on 14 March 2015.

This fine, informative display gave evidence of the Roman presence north of the Antonine Wall (between Forth and Clyde) around 2000 years ago. They set up marching camps and lines of communication, patrolled a long and complicated frontier, built great fortresses, then retreated. Yet few things remain to tell of their everyday life.

One was scale armour, known as lorica squamata [1], fragments found at the site of the fort at Carpow, near the junction of the rivers Tay and Earn in Perthshire. These small samples, linen cloth as backing, sown with 1-2 cm wide sheet-bronze scales, are stated to be the best preserved of this type of army gear in north-west Roman europe. They are rare intact because the linen cloth usually rots and disappears. Someone might have worn this armour to help protect them from a thrown stone or spear or a body blow from wood or metal. It is not known whether the fibre plant flax Linum usitatissimum used to make the linen was grown locally or even whether the cloth was made here [2]. There was a trade in linen throughout the empire.

Another was an amphora (a clay pot), reconstructed from pieces found at Carlungie, Angus, lying in one of the dwellings adjoining an earth-house or souterrain, used as an underground storage chamber. Amphora such as this were used to move wine, oil and other essentials round the empire. A note by the exhibit told the amphora was from Gaul (France) and contained French wine. Who brought it here is not known, but you can imagine the party.

The Tay from the bank opposite the site of the Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil looking west, a landscape probably little changed (Squire/Living Field)

Forts and fortresses along the northern frontier

These exhibits were some of the few fragments remaining in this area from the massive resourcing of the empire’s northern frontier. The Romans made Britain a province in 43 AD and by the 70s AD had established fortified lines and supply routes through (what are now) Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Moray. They patrolled well north of the Antonine Wall, which itself is more than an hour’s car-drive north of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

They built and manned forts close to transport routes by land and water from the south and east, as at Carpow, and camps and signal towers along the Gask line that ran north of Stirling and continued north east along fertile Strathmore as far as the east coast near Stracathro, and from there, dog-legging north and north west across Aberdeenshire to Moray. A long way to march. A long way from home.

Surprising is the size of some of the garrisons. The one at Carpow, close to the Tay estuary and not far from the North Sea, and thought to be occupied between 180 and 220, was designed to hold 2000-3000 people. The massive base at Inchtuthil – a legionary fortress – by the Tay river west of Meigle (image above), commanded the way north from Perth and was estimated from its dimensions and excavated buildings to house 20,000 to 50,000. A small town! To do its job today, it would need to be sited a few miles farther west to command the A9 and railway from Perth to Inverness.

Roman Inchtuthil existed only for a few years in the AD 80s before it was purposely abandoned. Even if not fully occupied, these garrisons must have held thousands to tens of thousands of people, many of whom were soldiers with big appetites.

Across the Tay to the site of the Roman legionary fortress at Inchtuthil on the raised ground beyond the tall trees (Squire/Living Field)

How to feed thousands of soldiers

They all had to be fed. They would have brought and tended some of their own livestock and perhaps grown some crops and vegetables nearby, but the staple food would have been grain – wheat, barley or oat. (There was no maize, potato or turnips then.) Just think how many packets of porridge oats would be needed to feed all those men every morning [3], and that grain would have had to be transported over long distances from the south or else stolen or coerced as tribute, or tax, from local people.

The SCRAN entry states: “The Roman army was adept at self-sufficiency. At Inchtuthil the legionaries exploited local resources of wood, stone, gravel, and clay to build their fortress. They manufactured their own lime, bricks, and pottery on the spot. Food and other raw materials such as leather would have been obtained from the natives, probably in the form of tax. The massive granaries at Inchtuthil hint at the scale of such levies.” And these granaries, or grain stores, were big, as shown by the diagrams and aerial images made during archaeological digs (online references below).

The exhibition says that when the Romans came the area was populated by farming communities of native tribes, scattered and based around fortified hill tops. This was the late Iron Age, so agriculture would have been widespread, but even so it would have been very hard pressed to support tens of thousands of soldiers in addition to the existing people. Imagine working hard all year to grow crops and then when they were harvested, you had to give away a lot of the grain for the privilege of having the Romans living nearby. The invaders can’t have been popular and presumably that is why they had to build these lines of communication and massive fortresses.

Coppiced birch, last cut 20-30 years ago, near the site of a Roman signal tower in Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)

In conclusion

The Romans did not stay long. They arrived (in what is now Scotland) in the 70s (AD), which is about one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago, but they were gone in less than 150 years. Their leaving is said to be the result of things happening elsewhere in the empire. Rome was too stretched – but (you have to ask) – was it the midge!

The iron age skills of growing crops and tending stock continued to the present time. So did working hard all year and giving away the harvest to those wealthier or more powerful. The Romans had no monopoly on oppression. It became endemic to northern agriculture.

Notes

[1] Squamata is the scientific name now given to reptiles that have scaly skin, the lizards and snakes.

[2] Flax is one of the oldest fibres plants, grown in Britain for several thousand years, see the Living Field’s page on Fibres.

[3] A packet of porridge oats weighing one kilogram contains 25 servings. To make 1000 servings would take 40 packets, and 10,000 servings 400 packets; and that would be just for one breakfast.

Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)
Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)

Sources and references

Introduction including material for schools

BBC Primary History http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/romans_in_scotland/

SCRAN Trust: information on the fortress at Inchtuthil and on   grain stores http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Inch.htm http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Garrison.htm#granary

See also links to SCRAN for Carpow and Gask Frontier from the above pages.

Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Books and articles

Jones, RH. 2012. Roman camps in Britain. Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Available as ebook via Google Books.

Hoffmann, B. 2013.The Roman invasion of Britain – archaeology versus history. Pen and Sword Archaeology, Barnsley, UK.

Wolliscroft DJ, Hoffman B. 2006. Rome’s first frontier: the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. Tempus publishing.

Archaeological investigations and records (RCAHMS)

Carpow: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/30081/details/carpow/

Inchtuthil: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/28592/details/inchtuthil/

Contact

geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Photographs on this page taken early April 2015.

Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)
Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)

 

Thorburn’s diagrams

The bere line – rhymes with hairline

Thomas Thorburn used diagrams to get a point across: for example, diagrams  in the form of a squares to represent large numbers of things. If the reader was no good with figures, then they might get a better idea by comparing two squares of different size to see which was larger and which smaller, and by how much.

His “Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854” was based on agricultural census data collated by the Highland Society and gives areas grown with various crops and output in total bushels of grain and in bushels of grain per acre, including those for barley and bere.

Title page of ‘Diagrams’ by Thomas Thorburn, set by the Living Field on a greyscale image of an Orkney bere field (Living Field)

Bere (or bigg) and barley are clearly distinguished in the pages of Diagrams as different crops.

Summary

The agricultural census in Diagrams tells us much about bere and barley in the 1850s.

  • Bere was grown mostly in the north and west, but occurred in most agricultural census regions. Farmers throughout Scotland would have been familiar with it.
  • The area in Scotland sown with bere was just less than 10% or one-tenth that sown with barley.
  • Yields of barley and bere, when expressed in modern units were both 1.5-2.0 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), compared to present national average yields of 5-6 t/ha for spring barley.
  • In Scotland as a whole, bere yields were a bit less than those of  barley (about 80% or 90% depending on how yield was calculated), but where they were both grown in the same area, as in some northern and north-eastern regions, their yields were similar.
  • Bere has now almost disappeared as a commercial crop, whereas barley is the most widely grown corn in Scotland, going mainly to malting and animal feed.

Where was bere grown in the 1850s?

The area grown with bere in 1854 was about 9% of the area of barley. So in the whole of Scotland, just over ten times more barley was grown than bere. And while most bere was grown in the north and north-east, in places such as Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland and Caithness, it was grown in a small area in many other places, including areas such as Haddington which are considered to be high-yielding. (The names Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland, Haddington, refer to census areas.)

Here are some figures. The area grown with bere in census regions was, at the top end, Aberdeen 5322 ac, Orkney and Shetland 2922 ac, Caithness 2710 ac, Argyll 1888 ac; and at the bottom end, Perth 502 ac, Haddington 40 ac and Roxburgh 6 ac. The abbreviation ‘ac’ refers to acre, which is about 40% of the hectare, the present metric unit (1 acre = 0.4047 hectare; a hectare can be visualised as a square of 100 m by 100 m).

For barley, the figures at the top end were Fife 27,938 ac, Forfar 25,222 ac, Perth 23, 710 ac, Berwick 16,576 ac; while figures in the north and west were Orkney and Shetland 149 ac, Caithness 265 ac and Bute 389 ac.

What did it yield

Thorburn gives yield in bushels per acre, bushels being a measure of dry volume, used for grain, and acre being a unit of area widely used until recently, and still used locally. He gives the total bushels produced in each census region (from which bushels per acre can be calculated by dividing bushels by the area of the region) and in a separate diagram, he gives bushels per acre for each region. The two estimates are not always the same, so here we use Thorburn’s bushels per acre figures rather than our calculated figures.

Using standard conversion factors and our estimate of 1 bushel of bere = 21.8 kilograms (see Light on bushel), the national average yield of bere was 1.77 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) and of barley 1.93 t/h, so the yield of bere was just more than 90% (nine tenths) of the yield of barley.

The yields vary between regions, but where both barley and bere are grown together, especially in the north and west, the yields are not that different. In Caithness, for example, barley is 36.0 bushels per acre and bere 36.5 bushels per acre.

Caution

In Diagrams as it appears online, there is no description of the methods by which the census was conducted. It is presumed the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland did the work and handed the information to Thorburn who constructed his diagrams.

The yields of crops would have been difficult to measure consistently in the field or on the farm. Harvested grain differs in water-content depending on the weather, the locality and the variety of the crop. And grain also will differ in how ‘clean’ it is , how free of the bits and pieces of plant material that may be harvested with it. Today, yields reported in the annual census are given to a stated water content; so if the actual content measured in the combine harvester or in the grain store differs from this stated content, then the mass has to be corrected to allow comparison of near-dry mass between fields, farms and regions. No indication is given in Thorburn of how the dryness and cleanliness of the grain were standardised across regions.

The way the bushel was measured also probably varied. Perhaps some farms used a standard bushel measure (e.g. a barrel or basket) whereas others might have used a container, such as a cart, that they knew held a given number of bushels.

And then the areas sown with the crops were stated very precisely, sometime to several hundred thousand acres and three quarters. But were all fields measured so precisely? What if crops were grown in strips or parts of fields – was the area grown with each strip or part measured? It is difficult today to measure accurately the area of all fields in Scotland sown with a particular crop – and that is with all the official demands to record what was grown where and when.

Despite these uncertainties, the census was a major achievement. It must have taxed the Highland Society’s officials and local organisers. And they probably did have a very good appreciation of areas and outputs. But in some regions they appear to have come up against difficulties that were too great – for example, the yield of bere in Orkney and Shetland is omitted from Thorburn, despite much bere being grown there.

Sources and References

Thorburn T.  1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson.

Scanned images of Diagrams appear online, for example through the Bodlean Libraries at the University of Oxford, as in the following pdf file: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/590979280.pdf But not all the pages appear to be viewable!

The Scottish Records Association has a page on the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland with references to that time:
[http://www.scottishrecordsassociation.org/index.php/archival-summaries/other-institutions/52-royal-highland-and-agricultural-society-of-scotland] Ed: possible issues with this web link, inquiries in progress.

And the following should lead directly to a pdf file on the above:
[http://www.scottishrecordsassociation.org/images/archivalSummaries/SRA004rhass.pdfSummary] Ed: possible issues with this web site, inquiries in progress.

Ps. There is also a recent reissue of one of Thorburn’s books: Diagrams, illustrative of Facts, Principles & Theories. Paperback by Nabu Press, published 2012. [Update:  we have now viewed this book in late 2017 and confirm that it contains few statistics about land or agriculture.  It covers a wide range of topics in various forms, including line graphs and squares within squares .]

Bere and barley at the Living Field

Links to other Living Field entries on bere and barley can be found at the bear line – rhymes with hairline.

Author/contact for this article: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Light on bushel

When trying to work out how much grain was produced by crops such as bere, barley and oat in the 1800s, it was necessary to convert the bushel, the unit of measure that was common at that time, to the kilogram, which is the unit of weight in the modern International System (abbreviated to SI).

The bushel is a unit of ‘dry volume’ for measuring things like grain and meal rather than liquids. Farmers and grain traders  used a standard basket or barrel which when full would hold 1 bushel, equivalent to 8 gallons.  But obviously a bushel of ball bearings weighs more than a bushel of bere grain. So before it can be converted to modern units, the bushel has to be calibrated for each type of filling.

Table, jug and balance

Things used: table, kitchen measuring jug to 0.5 or 1 litre, kitchen balance (e.g. used for weighing out flour), lightweight container and  a bag of bere grain, grown in the Living Field garden, harvested and air-dried for some months. The bere grain was cleared of stems and leaves – any long awns still attached to individual grains were broken off.  The jug was filled with grain slowly. When a quarter full, the jug was banged gently on the table twice to consolidate the grain. The same was done when half full, three-quarters full and almost full. When full, the container was placed on the balance and the scale brought to zero. The grain was poured into the container and the weight noted.

In this instance, 0.5 litre of bere grain weighed 300 g (not 299 or 301).

Conversion

A bushel equals 8 gallons or 36.37 litres. So a bushel holds 72.7 of the 0.5 litre measuring jug. Since 0.5 litre of bere grain weighed 300 g, a bushel of bere should weigh 21.8 kg.

The bushel is used in some countries, including the USA and Canada, as a unit of weight and so a bushel has a different weight assigned to it for each type of grain. We are pleased to see that the USA’s standard bushel of barley is 21.77 kg, close to our estimate. Their bushel of wheat and several other small grain crops and beans is  27.2 kg while that of oat is 14.5 kg. It means wheat is heavier and oat is lighter than barley or bere for a given volume. So a person would be happier carrying two bushes of oat than two of bere.

What causes the difference in the weight of a bushel? Provided the cereals are dried to a constant moisture content, the difference lies in the proportion of the (heavier) grain to the surrounding protective husks. Wheat grain commonly falls out of the husks at harvest so the light material may not be included; oat is more husky.

Therefore when converting yields of bere in bushels, we will used the conversion, 1 bushel = 21.8 kg.

Sources, references

University of North Carolina, USA: http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/scales/bushels.html and links from that page to general information about measuring systems and units.

UK Agriculture web site, page on sizes and scales: http://www.ukagriculture.com/sizes_and_scales/sizes_and_scales.cfm

National Museum of Scotland. Photograph of a bronze bushel measure.

The International Systems of units – Bureau International des Poids and Mesures: http://www.bipm.org/en/about-us/

Note of statistical procedures: the methods reported above can be used in a fun-sized comparison of different cereals and beans. A proper  scientific calibration would check the balance with standard weights at the beginning, then repeat the procedure several times with different lots of grain from the same harvest to get an average with a estimate of the variation. If two corn crops were compared, the average plus variation would allow a statistical test of whether the two were really different.

Links on this site

The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Thorburn’s Diagrams (for grain weights in bushels).

Grain measures in Ancient Greece (measuring tables at Ancient Messene)

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Grain measures in Ancient Greece

Standard measures for checking the dry volume of produce such as grain and fruit have been in place since trade in agricultural products began. A barrel or basket holding one bushel (8 gallon or 36.4 litre) was once commonly used in Britain. (See Light on bushel.) The following is an example of a device used in Ancient Greece and Rome.

The measuring tables at Ancient Messene

At the archaeological site of Ancient Messene in the Peloponnese, Greece, there are stone tables into which hemispheres or bowls have been carved. A notice nearby states that these measuring standards were found during the excavation in what was originally part of a communal space (the agora). The bowls were “for testing the capacity of the containers used by merchants who were selling dry fruits and grain”. Images of the tables and bowls are shown below.

Measuring tables at Messene (Squire)
Measuring tables at Messene (Squire)

The tables are sited by a wall under the letters A and B in the upper image.  Table A is shown lower left; it measures more than 1 metre in length. Each table has two bowls carved into it, identified by the white ovals, lower right.

The bowls have a rough surface, and holes at the bottom which would have been fitted with stoppers. The holes were large enough for grain to pour through when the stoppers were pulled out.

There was one further table, positioned in a corner made by two walls. One of the bowls seemed to have a hollow stone hemisphere placed on top of it (image below), the purpose of which is unclear.

Measuring table at Messene (Squire)
Measuring table at Messene (Squire)

 

The ‘mensa ponderaria’ at Assos (after Tarbell)

This type of table, known generally as a ‘mensa ponderaria’ was widespread in the ancient world. F. B Tarbell gives an account of one found at Assos, an ancient site in Turkey. The table from Assos is a block of marble – 1.11 m long , 0.455 m broad and 0.21 high – in which have been excavated 5 bowls of differing volume. For various reasons, including that the surfaces of the five bowls are rough (as at Messene), it is believed they were originally lined with bronze. There is a copy of a drawing from Tarbell’s article below. A photograph of this mensa can be seen online at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (see references). The bowls are estimated to have held between 0.27 and 4.62 litre.

Mensa ponderaria at Assos from Tarbell
Mensa ponderaria at Assos from Tarbell

The largest bowl from Assos is therefore about 13% of a bushel. These capacities look at though they were designed for ground material or fine seed, for example ground spices or meal or cleaned seed of small-seeded crops. Coarser material such as fruit and husked grain contains a lot of air space that can cause packing errors when poured into such small containers.

Concluding

The stone tables and bowls at Messene appeared larger than the ones from Assos (but unfortunately they were not measured during the visit). From memory, the largest bowl would hold about half a bucket or one-third of a bushel, which is getting a bit closer to the practical size for measuring the dry volume of rough grain that retains husks, such as oat and barley, or small-sized fruit.

Ancient Messene was founded 369 BC, around 2400 years ago. These durable measuring tables indicate the importance of standard weights and measures to an advanced society that depended on agriculture, and on trade in produce, and wanted to be, and seen to be, fair and to avoid having the people misled by traders and merchants.

Sources and references

Tarbell FB. 1891. A “Mensa Ponderaria” from Assos. The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts 7, 440-44. Online at:
http://www.jstor.org/stable/496471?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents

Photographs of the Assos mensa ponderaria at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/measurement-block-mensa-ponderaria-199469

The archaeological site of Ancient Messene, search at http://www.visitgreece.gr

Field Art

The Living Field is pleased to announce that the artist Jean Duncan has been commissioned to work with us during 2014 on designs and exhibits to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Living Field Garden.

Painting by Jean Duncan 2013
Painting by Jean Duncan 2013

Jean will develop ideas arising from the Living Field’s 5000 years project – the history and use of crops and other plants since the first settlers brought agriculture to these shores in the late stone age.

One result of her work will be educational material free to download from the web or available as PDF files.

You can see more about Jean’s work and her previous collaborations with the Living Field at the Jean Duncan page in the main menu.