A stone-ground history regarding bread

After two posts on the lack of sleep, perhaps I need a vacation before I ingest a battery. However, the fall semester has begun, so I’m rather stuck at the office. Oh well, next best thing – imagination it is! I’ll just imagine that I’m taking in Roman history in southern France and that this isn’t just a poor, thinly-veiled run-on sentence of an introduction to an article that I’m writing in response to Ruby over at her blog, HistorianRuby: An Historian’s Miscellany, which I recommend going to if you’re a history buff.

Although it seems like when most people think of Rome and ancient France, they mostly think about Caesar’s disastrous road trip, there are many places of historical significance in southern France, closest to the Italian peninsula and the heart of Rome. These places have examples of Roman architecture, some of which still exist and even used, and would be a really neat part of any Roman history road trip, and not just because you could easily take a detour into the French Riviera and really rub it in people’s faces (or at least those who follow your social media feeds).

So what does all this have to do with the watermill that I have in the Featured Image? I had to put that up because this week’s OPEN ACCESS Featured Article has to do with anthropologists’ findings regarding a large mill complex in the south of France. You wouldn’t think it’s much of a watermill if all you saw was this, which was from the Barbegal complex near Arles:

Flickr/CC-BY-20 (Author: maarjaara, 2008)

According to the authors, the keen thing about the Barbegal complex is that it was one of the earliest examples of hydraulics – it was built in the 1st century CE – and perhaps the biggest at sixteen mills. This likely flies in the face of what we might expect from Imperial Rome, who used a lot of slave labor, and ‘milling’ evokes images of emaciated people pushing a large wheel that turns a millstone (a common fantasy trope for slave labor, it appears), and thus, the authors attest, “the use of watermills was grossly underestimated” in Roman manufacturing. The Barbegal complex is known for being a grain mill, but its sheer size means that it made quite a lot of flour. It’s clear to many anthropologists what such a mill complex is about, but the authors do have a few questions: where did all that flour go? How was the complex used? Were there other complexes of this size? Thanks to ‘novel laboratory techniques’ (read: there’s a lotta science-ing to do), the authors believe they can answer these questions.

Public Domain (Author: mwooten, 2015)

This bit on anthropology relied a lot on geology and forensics as the authors looked into the crystal structure of the calcium carbonate deposits – think stalactites and stalagmites but really small – on the stones that make up the mill. These deposits likely came from the spring water that powered the mill (these days we just clean them from the bathroom tap) and ran down the slope, which powered the water mills that milled the grain into flour. The crystal growths were consistent with flowing downhill through stairs and flumes that poured onto the mills. It’s the next bit that often made the news rounds: isotope dating on the calcium carbonate fragments showed a seasonal, almost predictable pattern that implied two things: high seasonal rainfalls and that the mill was not constantly used. According to the authors, “interruptions occurred predominantly in late summer and autumn.” Casual scientist or thinker you might be, but you really don’t have to stretch far to conclude that mill workers probably took a summer holiday. And who wouldn’t want to holiday in the south of France?

Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-30, Author: Sergey Ashmarin, 2012)

According to the authors’ research, grain-milling “was done locally at home, in bakeries, or in individual watermills” at that time; they were big on locally-sourced goods because that’s all that there was in most of the ancient world. However, the Barbegal mills could have made flour that they sent down to the nearest port at Arles (Arelate at the time) not for year-round use, as milled flour doesn’t have a long shelf life compared to unmilled flour. Instead, they propose that Barbegal-milled flour was made to make bread for the ships docked at Arelate. That must have been a lot of hardtack. However, the calcium carbonite crystals also tell the frankly sad end of the Barbegal complex: wood and debris fragments in the crystal deposits suggest that the complex wasn’t maintained near the end of its’ life, which radiodating puts this at around the 3rd century CE, a bad time in the Empire.

A lot of my recent posts involve very specific areas of the sciences, particularly #materials and/or the #brain, but science isn’t all isolated islands in the seas of discovery (and that clichéd metaphor is brought to you by a yearning to sip espressos on a Mediterranean seaside resort). Sometimes, an academic needs the expertise of another in a different field to solve a problem, and unlike many of our experiences with working on group projects back in compulsory education, these collaborations can come up with some neat things. In this case, how stone ruins in the south of France can tell a story not just of a bustling mill, but how large-scale manufacturing can be possible even back in the day. Also, vacations are as old as time, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – some thoughts the next time you have some bread.

Public Domain (Author: romanov, 2013)

Thoughts? Comments? Bread recipes? Let me know in the space below, throw a like if you liked it, and you don’t need to be a WordPress member to do it! If you’re not doing so already, please follow (if you’re into scientific research with snarky commentary anyway) and thanks again for stopping by. And if you’re into history, why not jump to HistorianRuby – you may want to explore history yourself, maybe even your own, and her blog might give you some ideas as to where you could begin.

Featured Article: Sürmelihindi G, Leveau P, Spötl C, Bernard V, Passchier CW. (2018). The second century CE Roman watermills of Barbegal: Unraveling the enigma of one of the oldest industrial complexes. Science Advances 4(9):eaar3620. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar3620.

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Dimitris Vetsikas, 2016)


  1. Reblogged this on HistorianRuby: An Historian's Miscellany and commented:
    HistorianRuby’s ‘Trip to the Museum’ post inspired Jonny from science.casual to write a fascinating article about a ruined Roman watermill in France. Its size suggests that the Barbegal complex had a more industrial purpose, sending flour to the nearest port, rather than for domestic consumption.
    I urge you to take a look at science.casual – its science written for the layperson, which is fab for those who like their science of the casual and easy to read variety.
    Thanks, Jonny!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great! I love archaeological and anthropological research that explores every last little bit of an important site. Thanks so much for the name check, too, and have re-blogged it for my followers.
    Coincidentally, I visited a local watermill this past weekend and have planned a post on it – I even bought a bag of their flour which is ‘not approved for human consumption’ – so I intend to make dog biscuits!

    Liked by 1 person

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