1988d) “A method for identifying grain storage techniques and its application for European agricultural history”

Tools and Tillage, 6, 1: 332. [Tiré à part] [Tapuscrit]

Tapuscrit n°3-6 – ref.: 1988d


Published in Tools and Tillage, 1988, 6, 1: 3 32.


A Method for identifying grain storage techniques


and its application for European agricultural history


François Sigaut


April 1988




Until recent years, grain storage had been a rather neglected topic in history and anthropology. One cause of this neglect was that cereal conservation was thought to be "easy": it has become so indeed in industrialized countries, but it was usually difficult and costly in former times, and it still is so in most Third world countries. Grain conservation cannot be taken for granted historically, its techniques and ecological conditions have to be seriously understood and described.


This paper proposes a method for identifying cereal conservation techniques, based upon the two following questions: exactly what is stored? And how is it preserved in storage?


Answering the question what implies that each cereal product, from the freshly harvested sheaves to the final product, bread or gruel, must be examined in order to see whether it can be or is stored, and for how long. This survey has been done cursorily for processed products (after milling), because they are either not important as stored items, or do not require specific techniques for their conservation. The main part of the paper deals with unprocessed grain (before milling), both because of its usual importance in food reserves, and because it does require specific conservation techniques. Unprocessed grain can be put into storage as: 1, grain in bulk (threshed and winnowed); 2, grain in bulk with chaff (threshed but not winnowed); 3, ears (separated from the culms); 4, culms with ears, unbound; and 5, sheaves (culms with ears, bound together). Each of these five forms has its specific requirements and constraints to be kept in storage.


As for the question how, it aims at listing the different available means to protect grain against damage, both before storage and during storage. Before storage, the most usual operation is drying, which can be done either by using natural means (sun and wind) or by using an artificial source of heat (drying-kilns, etc.). During storage proper, the only way to prevent damage in the grain is to exert some control on the atmosphere surrounding it. Three methods are of common occurrence: 1, aeration (using external airto cool the grain); 2, airtightness (keeping air out to stop the respiration of insects and of other potentially harmful organisms); and 3, no-control storage (aeration is avoided, but true airtightness is not intended).


The first question has resulted in the identification of stored items, the second in the identification of storage methods. To identify the storage techniques proper, it remains to determine what methods are used with what items. This is most conveniently done with the help of a double-entry table where items appear in line, and methods in column, and where each box represents a specific technique. Ten usual techniques are identified in this way.


The second part of the paper uses the results of the first to propose a reappraisal of the evidence for past practices of threshing and storage in Europe. Four systems of interconnected harvest-to-storage techniques are tentatively identified: 1, harvest and storage of ears; 2, sickle harvest, immediate threshing with animals and storage in bulk; 3, sickle harvest, delayed threshing with flails, and storage in sheaves; and 4, sickle harvest, immediate threshing with flails. System 1 is probably the most ancient, it survives in Asturias (Spain). System 2 obtains in Mediterranean countries since Classical times, system 3 in northern and central Europe since Medieval times, and system 4 along the Atlantic coast of France (and probably elsewhere as well). But the relative chronology and areal distribution of the four systems is not known with any precision.


Elevated post-granaries are probably characteristic of system 1, underground silos of system 2 and perhaps of system 4, and barns of system 3. But these relationships are far from univocal, and our knowledge is much too defective for such a conclusion to be presented as much more than speculation.