Talks by BAS members 12th December 2020

The Stone of Life: Grain Processing in Jordan, by Alison McQuitty.

Alison explained that the title of her talk had been taken from a book by David Peacock about ancient flour production (‘The Stone of Life: Querns, Mills and Flour Production in Europe, up to c.AD 500’), as the processing of grain into flour for bread, by grinding between stones, was pivotal to the evolution of civilisation all over the world, including in Jordan. 

Alison first worked in Jordan in the 1980s, as a ‘dig bum’ (her words, not mine!), and showed us photographs of various dig sites from this time. As there is little written evidence for prehistoric mills, Alison described how the evidence for the existence of mills was found from excavation, architectural surveys of sites, and from ethnographic enquiry. This last meant talking to elderly people, and finding from their memories when a particular mill, even a now ruinous mill, may have been in use by their grandparents, and other ancestors.

We saw pictures of women preparing and baking flatbread, known colloquially as ‘Aish’, in clay ovens. We learnt how it was considered very bad luck to throw bread away, and that any that had fallen on the floor and was not fit for human consumption, was stashed away in a corner of the kitchen. Alison thinks it was later fed to goats, in order not to waste food, but that this was done discreetly and not talked about.

The first mills were saddle querns, where a kneeling woman ground the corn between a stone rubber and a large saddle-shaped stone. About 2000 years ago, saddle querns were supplanted by rotary querns. These worked by grinding the corn between two circular stones. The corn was trickled in through a central hole in the upper stone, which was then turned using a wooden handle inserted into the stone.

Using a saddle quern

Alison explained that every household would have its own quern, that they were as necessary as pots and pans in the kitchen. This changed with the development of what is known as the Pompeian mill. Here, a huge circular grinder stone is turned by men or a donkey, needing more room than found in a kitchen. This led to the development of ‘industrial’ bakeries, where corn was ground in a courtyard, processed and then baked into bread. We saw an example of the large lower circular stone, with its prominent boss, from Khirbat Faris in Jordan, as well as a reconstructed Pompeian mill in the Museum of London.

Alison went on to talk about watermills, showing a photograph of the first one she had seen in Jordan, in the 1980s, and explaining that such mills were to be found all over the world, from the Shetlands to Kashmir, wherever there was a good flow of water. She explained that it was unclear when these mills were introduced, as it was very difficult to date the remains.

The top of a penstock water mill showing the channel leading to the tower

How the various types of watermills worked was described, with the diagrams shown clearly illustrating the process. The vertical-wheeled water mill is the one most people are familiar with, but the workings of the horizontal-wheeled mill and the penstock mill were also described.

We saw the remains of a 13th century AD vertical-wheeled mill at al-Safi in Jordan, which was used to crush sugarcane, an important money crop. In the Q & A session at the end of the talk, Alison explained that as well as wheat, barley, pulses and sugarcane being ground, watermills could also be used to grind copper and manganese ore.

From the excavated remains of a penstock mill in Wadi Arab, we were able to see how, from a distant waterway, a conduit or leat brought water to the mill. The water then fell down a ‘chimney’, and with the additional force of gravity, became powerful enough to turn the mill wheel.

Alison talked of the difficulty of dating the remains of watermills. The accumulation of tufa (a stone formed when the calcium carbonate in water precipitates onto moss and other plants), showed that the mill had been in use for 200 years. For when the mill had been in use, there was some evidence from 16th century tax documents. Ethnographic evidence from elders suggested that some watermills were still in use in the 1950s to 1960s, but then modernisation had taken place, with diesel replacing water as a source of power.

Alison talked briefly about vertical-wheeled watermills, which were very common in some parts of the Roman Empire, but said that there were no examples in Jordan, except for three built by Armenians in the 19th century. Later, in the Q & A session, Alison was to say that in spite of the excess of wind in Jordan, no evidence of windmills was to be found, with the only windmill of which she was aware having been built by German settlers in modern times.

Alison explained how previously, individual households had taken their grain to a mill to get it ground, and that this practice had continued with diesel mills. But that gradually the practice of industrial bakers grinding flour and baking bread for sale had become more widespread. 

The efficiency of the various types of mill was discussed. Grinding corn on a saddle quern for an hour produced 0.5-1 kg of flour, a rotary quern produced 4 kg, a Pompeian mill produced 5 kg, and a horizontal-wheeled watermill produced 25 to 50 kg of flour. This clearly displayed how the ‘Stones of Life’ had enabled the faster production of flour with which to feed the expanding populations of emerging civilisations. 

Alison finished her talk with websites for those interested in further research:

The Mills Archive Trust, Watlington House, Reading, to be found at:

The International Molinological Society, at:

Archaeology in Schools, by Maggie Smith.

Maggie started her talk by showing us archaeology in school grounds. We saw the results of excavations by Oxford Archaeology at Mapledurham playing fields, and were told that at several schools in Reading new building work had resulted in, for example, the excavation of a Late Bronze Age roundhouse at Reading Girls’ School.

Maggie went on to answer the question ‘What teaching and learning of archaeology is going on in schools?’ She started with a brief description of the different types of school to be found in England, and then discussed how they are regulated. We learned about the Education Reform Act 1988, and the effects that this had had on education, with the introduction of the National Curriculum, Key Stages, SATs and OFSTED, the Office for Standards in Education, which is responsible for inspecting schools in order to maintain standards.

We saw a list of the twelve National Curriculum subjects, and learned how the details of each subject had changed over the years, and with changes of government. For example, Maggie told us, Michael Gove has a particular interest in history, and when he was Secretary of State for Education, this was reflected in changes to the National Curriculum. 

We looked at the details of Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11 years), History syllabus in the National Curriculum. These started with Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, went on to the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain, then Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots, and finally the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England up to Edward the Confessor. A local history study was included (presumably to encourage young people to engage with their local communities), as well as a study of the achievements of the earliest civilisations, both European and non-European, with which to compare British history. Maggie told us that in Key Stage 3 (ages 11 to 14 years), English history continued from 1066 to World War II.

Maggie pointed out that up until 2019, archaeology could be studied to A and AS level, and she showed a couple of questions from the AS Archaeology examination paper, for us to have a go at answering. (I was fine on ‘Archaeological skills and methods’, but my knowledge of Egyptian archaeology is limited!)

In Maggie’s opinion, the National Curriculum was ‘very prescribed’, and she felt that with SATs, OFSTED, etc., there was too much pressure for results, and no time or desire for extra studies. She pointed out that the National Curriculum varied across the UK, with Wales and Scotland, for example, having a very different approach to teaching, with fewer prescribed details, and so had room to add archaeology. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Maggie had been unable to find archaeology taught in schools anywhere, other than in Australia, where there were courses for senior schoolchildren.

Maggie went on to answer the question ‘What contribution can archaeology make to pupils’ learning?’ Maggie felt that a knowledge and understanding of archaeology crossed the science/humanities/arts divide, and that there were links to many other subject areas. She felt that the skills archaeology had to offer were too many to number, and that the values archaeology taught were of use in studies of cultural identity and cultural diversity. In particular Maggie felt that seemingly inaccessible time periods could be made relevant and meaningful to pupils through archaeology. 

Maggie described the barriers to increasing the awareness of archaeology in schools, the most significant appearing to be a rigid or overcrowded National Curriculum and the assessment regime. Other barriers included lack of awareness, archaeology considered to be of little practical use, and history teachers not having been trained in archaeology, and hence more comfortable relying on written historical records, rather than using the real historic environment as evidence.

Maggie suggested that the barriers could be overcome by teaching and archaeological communities exchanging knowledge – sharing practice, and also by sharing examples of showcase initiatives by archaeologists. In discussing the way forward, on how to promote archaeology as a learning tool within the school curriculum, Maggie went on to give examples of sharing practice, such as that of the Museum of London going to schools and providing archaeological experiences for schoolchildren. She also described fieldwork initiatives such as Historical Association: Dig School – a free online workshop for secondary schools, and also Oxford Archaeology, which provided dig sessions for children.

Maggie talked about what BAS had done in March 2019, when a teacher had asked for help for a school visit to a local Iron Age hillfort. Maggie described a visit to the school, and the BAS-organised experimental activity of living in an Iron Age roundhouse, this being created out of a circle of chairs in the school hall, with the children going inside, working out where they would sleep and put their belongings, and how they would live there. We saw a simple model of an Iron Age roundhouse that the schoolchildren could, and did, make for themselves.

Model of a round house made by children at the BAS Iron Age exhibition in Brock Keep

Then the actual field trip – a visit to Caesar’s Camp Iron Age hillfort in Bracknell. We saw photographs of the children measuring the width of the Roman road that led to the hillfort. We saw the children on top of the hillfort, looking at, describing and sketching the fortifications. The children looked as if they were enjoying themselves, and one presumes a good time was had by all!

Measuring the width of the Roman road

Maggie described many other ways of involving pupils in archaeology, one of which was to set up a Young Archaeologists Club (YAC). Maggie described how the Outreach working group of BAS is exploring the most effective ways to work with local schools. Ways suggested were to create resources (artefacts, worksheets), to provide experiences (fieldwork, simulations), to provide specialist expertise, or to act as a gatekeeper to existing resources. Other suggestions were invited.

Maggie ended her talk by asking question: ‘Why should we work with schools?’ Her answer: If young people are introduced to the historic environment, they begin to value and appreciate it, and support its preservation.

In the Q & A session that followed, Beth Asbury, Assistant Archaeologist (HER and Outreach) for West Berkshire Council, talked about the work local museums did with schools, and also Reading Young Archaeologists’ Club. Other members joined in, and discussed problems with communicating with Reading YAC, and the lack of a Berkshire YAC that covered both West and East Berkshire.

Adventures in Egypt, by Beth Asbury.

Beth set the scene for her talk by showing us a map of Cairo. She pointed out the Giza Necropolis and the Grand Egyptian Museum, so that those of us who had been there before could orientate ourselves. She then showed us the location of the Egyptian Museum, and nearby, on Gezira Island, Beth’s apartment block and her workplace, at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo

Beth talked about the history of the SCA, the government body which was responsible for the conservation, protection and regulation of all antiquities and archaeological excavations in Egypt. We saw photos of Beth and her colleagues outside the SCA building, the living room of her cosy flat, and a peaceful view of Downtown Cairo.

We saw Beth’s boss, Dr Zahi Hawass, posing with Beth and her colleagues. Beth talked about the work they did, in what they nick-named ‘the foreign office’ at the SCA. As native English speakers, they assisted Dr Zahi in the writing and editing of his correspondence and publications. She explained that the Egyptian government policy was to not employ foreigners, and so Beth and her colleagues were not officially employed!

Zahi & Obama at Giza (photo from national Geographic)

We saw a photo taken by Beth’s colleague, Meghan, in 2009, of Dr Zahi and President Barack Obama in Cairo. We saw the new tombs discovered at Giza, where Beth had gone to help a French television crew film the remains. We saw Dr Zahi with a CT scanner and at a DNA lab, and were told of the CT scanning of Tutankhamun’s mummy, and of further work he intended to do on other mummies, including that of Hatshepsut.

We saw photos of the huge, labyrinthine underground storerooms of the Egyptian Museum, taken before the revolution, and looking very neat and tidy. We saw Dr Zahi at the official opening of the Islamic Museum, and Beth talked of the work he had done in Egypt, in particular the opening of 17 new storage magazines for archaeological artefacts, where they could be protected and preserved before being moved to a museum.

We saw a lively and colourful photograph of an SCA staff awards ceremony, and Beth told us how Dr Zahi had founded a training scheme for young Egyptian archaeologists. She described some of the rules Dr Zahi had introduced to safeguard Egyptian archaeology from treasure seekers, such as that only properly qualified archaeologists, who must be associated with a university, could work on Egyptian sites, and that they must publish reports in good time. These new rules were criticised, but eventually accepted as good archaeological practice. 

Beth told us how Dr Zahi had raised the salaries of guards at archaeological sites, in order to stop the practice of accepting bribes for illegal visits and the taking of damaging flash photographs. He had also ruled that people should no longer climb up the sides of pyramids, as this caused damage to the ancient structures.

We looked at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, and Beth told us how Dr Zahi had had it repaired and made safe, in order for it to be more accessible to tourists. We saw images of 26th Dynasty and 21st century repairs side-by-side, and also pictures of Beth’s colleagues in the Serapeum at Saqqara, the ancient burial place of Apis bulls, where a new floor was being fitted to make it easier to visit.

On 25 January 2011, the Arab Spring arrived in Egypt. Beth described how first mobile phone signals and then the Internet was cut off, with the government presumably thinking that if it cut off communications, people would not leave their homes. But the opposite happened, and huge numbers of people rushed outside to go and check for themselves that their families were all right. We saw a photograph of an area of Cairo, absolutely packed with people. That night, the government introduced a curfew.

On a map of Cairo, Beth showed us how close she had been to the ‘action’. She described how home-made Molotov cocktails – flaming tea glasses of petrol, had been dropped on the police from windows of the media building, and we saw a photograph after it had been burnt out in retaliation. From her neighbours, Beth heard of barriers being built by local people, and also army and police barriers being built. She heard tales from colleagues outside Cairo of ‘highwaymen’ taking cars. We saw photographs of teargas bombs on the West Bank, taken by a colleague of Beth’s. In the Q & A session, Beth was to tell us that just the sound of exploding teargas bombs in a BBC report of the Arab Spring had shocked and distressed her, even when she was safe at home in England.

The Egyptian police abandoned the streets after a couple of days, and the rioting and looting of shops continued. It was at this time that the Egyptian Museum was broken into and archaeological artefacts stolen. In a photograph taken by Sandro Vannini, we saw the human chain around the Museum, formed by local people to prevent more looting. There was a tank by the side of the Museum, and in the background, a column of black smoke, rising from the burning National Democratic Party headquarters building.

Beth told how Dr Zahi had gone to the Museum and how both he and his chauffeur were attacked. She described how he had made an assessment of what had been stolen, and had later found out that even more had been taken, and that this had proved to be embarrassing.

With rumours spreading that the revolution had been started by foreigners, Beth and her colleagues did not feel safe, and she described how a male colleague had vanished for a few days, having gone into hiding. She told how the UK and the USA had closed their embassies. How the airport had been crowded with people trying to flee the country, how it had no water, and the toilets were blocked. Then President Hosni Mubarak resigned.

We heard about archaeological sites and storage magazines, where the guards and watchmen were not protected by the police, and, fearing for their safety, had left the premises unguarded.  Lorries arrived, and men broke into the magazines and emptied them of anything valuable. Beth told us how Dr Zahi had sent pleas for help, and how eventually the Egyptian Army had started protecting sites, including the Egyptian Museum.

The next pictures Beth showed us were of street art after the revolution. We saw graffiti of a tank, and also of a typical Egyptian bread delivery boy on a bicycle, carrying a ladder holding several boxes of bread on his head. Beth pointed out that this tied in nicely with Alison’s talk of ‘The Stone of Life: Grain Processing in Jordan’! We saw ‘resistance’ street art by the artist Keizer, as well as an image he had created of Dr Zahi. Under the image were words which translated into ‘Oh traitor of the pharaohs’, and Beth explained that some people felt Dr Zahi had betrayed ancient Egypt with the work he had done. She described one of Dr Zahi’s rulings that had been extremely unpopular with camel drivers: that at tourist sites camels should be restricted to one area only, and not be allowed to wander around and poo everywhere.

Graffiti of Zahi Hawass (photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy)

As we looked at revolution murals by Helwan University art students, Beth talked about the ‘grass roots’ revolution and of a government unaware of the power of social media. She described how later in January 2011 the SCA became an independent ministry: the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), with Dr Zahi Hawass as Minister.

Beth finished her talk with a suggested reading list for anyone interested in exploring the Egyptian Revolution, and she gave a link to her article: ‘Egypt’s antiquities in crisis?’ in The Archaeologist .Thames Valley Ancient Egypt Society can be found at

The three Members’ talks ended with Julie Worsfold wishing us all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

report by Joan Burrow-Newton

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire