2006(6) : « Some Topics for Cooperative Research »

 (Snails - Acorns, nuts, kernels - Pricked bones and whetstones – Yoking oxen by the horns)


Il the field of pre-industrial technology, facts are only to be understood, first if they are properly identified (question : what ?), second if their whole range of distribution (when ? where ?, by whom ?) is taken into account. Which usually requires the cooperation of different specialists. The problem is to select topics that are both as precise as possible, and sufficiently rewarding for all. Here are a few examples I could think of.


  1. Snails

Snails are today a delicacy in many parts of France, of Spain and possibly of other countries (Greece ?), but they are an object of disgust everywhere else. How did that situation come about ? The question is that of food taboos, and goes far beyond simple religious rules. It is the same with a lot of other foods, including for example mushrooms. But snails have a decisive advantage over mushrooms : they keep much better in shell middens, so that a large amount of archaeological evidence is available on snail gathering, cooking and eating since at least the Neolithic. On the other hand, it seems that historical evidence is available too, at least from the 19th century.

Those are the reasons why a worldwide research on snails could be quite rewarding. Such a research should assemble naturalists (malacologists), archaeologists, historians, ethnographers, etc.


  1. Acorns, nuts, kernels, etc.

A number of Californian Indians lived by acorns mainly. In the Old World, the role of acorns may well have been underestimated, probably because since the 1930s, the so-called “neolithic revolution” has killed every alternative theory. (A look at those earlier theories could be of interest, by the way.) Acorns and nuts, like snails, keep relatively well in refuse heaps, and they are also present in literary sources (cf Don Quixote). Either as famine foods (acorns with tannins) or as delicacies (sweet acorns), acorns have been gathered and eaten in many parts of the world well until the 20th century. Uphof’s Dictionary of Economic Plants lists 13 species of edible acorns (Quercus) on 51, 8 species of edible nuts (Juglans) on 15, 6 species of hazelnuts (Corylus) on 7, etc. In addition to their use as food, many nuts and kernels are used for oil.


  1. Pricked bones and whetstones

I just mention pricked bones used for making the teeth of sickles, because Patricia knows more than me on the matter. What happened in recent years with millstones made me think that whetstones may be quite interesting too. Metals being both corrodible and costly, metal tools are probably underrepresented in the archaeological record. Used bones and worn out whetstones are both indestructible and worthless, which makes them (or ought to make them ?) a boon for archaeologists. Plinius the Elder discusses whetstones from Creta, used with oil, against Italian stones, used with water, and there are other sources showing that in Roman times, whetstones could travel widely and far. Metal tools have to be sharpened.


4. Yoking oxen by the horns

This way of harnessing oxen is specific to western Europe. With the only exception of ancient Egypt (precise chronology to be ascertained), it is unknown elsewhere in the Old World, and nobody knows why (in fact, nobody seems to have wondered why).

I am beginning to wonder if the explanation could not be related to the way oxen were raised : in the wild for most of the time, gathered by horsemen on a few occasions only, for branding, for working, for being sold elsewhere or finally for being slaughtered. This system did exist in Spain (where it gave rise to bullfighting), but there are detailed texts showing that it was still extant in southern France, in Italy, etc. until the middle of the 19th century. Now, the horn-yoke harness is efficient, not only for traction, but also for taming the animals. Here again, the crossing of archaeological data with historical and ethnographic ones could lead to an answer.


  1. Etc. (Ad libitum)


François Sigaut

 Le 4 février 2006