Hilde Brumoen Engø at the Østfold Museum holds up a quern from Rakkestad.
Hilde Brumoen Engø at the Østfold Museum holds up a quern from Rakkestad.

Is this the world’s simplest mill?

The export of millstones was probably a major industry in Norway during the Viking Age.

Published

People in Norway have ground grain, herbs, seeds, nuts, and salt for thousands of years.

It's hard to find a simpler mill than the one you now can see displayed at Østfold Museum. The mill, also called a quern, is simply a round stone that fits nicely in the hand. For years it has been rolled back and forth on a thick tabletop.

6000 years ago?

Archaeologists now have proof that people used mills in Norway to grind grain and seeds as far back as 4,000 - 5,000 years ago.

But they may have used them even earlier. In Rogaland, archaeologists have found traces of grain pollen, possibly from 6,000 years ago.

One of the grains that may have been grown in Norway at that time is buckwheat. This is a precursor to spelt. The flour was probably used to make porridge and flatbread, which was cooked on hot stones. Perhaps people also made simple bread.

Hand mill and rotary hand mill

Milling grain was probably women's work, and they likely spent a lot of time doing it.

Different kinds of hand mills at the Borgarsyssel Museum.
Different kinds of hand mills at the Borgarsyssel Museum.

People in the Stone Age used a simple hand mill, also called a push grinder. This was a stone that was rolled back and forth inside a larger stone, which usually had a depression in the middle.

Rotary mills came to Norway at the beginning of the common era (CE).

The hand mill is the oldest known grinder type in Norway and may have been in the country for as long as 6000 years. It consists of a bowl-shaped stone (underlay) with a small stone (rider) that is pushed back and forth by hand. Grain, nuts, roots and other wild plants can be crushed in the mill. This mill is at the museum in Egersund.
The hand mill is the oldest known grinder type in Norway and may have been in the country for as long as 6000 years. It consists of a bowl-shaped stone (underlay) with a small stone (rider) that is pushed back and forth by hand. Grain, nuts, roots and other wild plants can be crushed in the mill. This mill is at the museum in Egersund.

This type of mill may have been invented in Spain and consisted of a stone with a hole in the middle — the eye — through which the grain could pass.

The mill was turned with a handle, and the grain was crushed against a stone underneath. The grain, now flour, came out from the side.

A rotary mill on display at the Romsdal Museum. Here, the top stone has been fitted with an iron pin that acts as a handle.
A rotary mill on display at the Romsdal Museum. Here, the top stone has been fitted with an iron pin that acts as a handle.

Big industry in the Viking era

The mill in Sogn also produced stone crosses. This stone is in the cemetery in Loen.
The mill in Sogn also produced stone crosses. This stone is in the cemetery in Loen.

Archaeologists have found evidence of old millstone and quernstone production in several places around Norway. The export of millstones was probably a major industry in Norway during the Viking Age.

Researchers have studied millstone and quernstone quarries in several places in Norway. The stones were carved straight out of the rock, just as was done in ancient Rome and Byzantium. Read more about the quernstones in Hyllestad at Wikiwand.

Overgrown quarries are a rich historical source, and a few years ago, several research projects started to look further into millstone production in Norway.

505 mills on the seabed

In Alverstraumen, just north of Bergen, 505 hand mills have been plucked from the seabed, probably from a ship in distress.

They may have come from the Hyllestad quarry.

The production of millstones in Hyllestad and Selbu continued right up to the 20th century. Selbu millstone was exported to Denmark and southern Sweden during the Viking Age and more recently, to several other countries, as far away as Russia and the United States.

Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no