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Feature Article

MORTARS
and
PESTLES

by Ed Henning

A mortar used in conjunction with a pestle was an important part of the Native American tool assemblage. These artifacts from the past help us understand some of the day to day occupational activities of the Native Americans. The fact that these artifacts are found in large numbers throughout the Americas indicates that the mortar and pestle was a much used simple machine used to reduce organics and non-organics for food preparation, the preparing of medicine, and the manufacturing of paint to name a few of its applications.


Unlike the muller and milling stone, also referred to as a mano and metate, that exerts a back and forth or circular motion to grind, the mortar and pestle directs energy downward into the mortar. This indicates the mortar and pestle was designed for crushing duty along with grinding.

Both the mortar and pestle and the muller and millingstone are mainly used for food preparation. Many separate the morphology of the two by use-wear evidence. The deep circular holes in both the wood and stone mortars are evidence of a mortar and pestle. A flat slab millingstone or a concave slab millingstone (metate) used with a muller (mano) would fit in the category of a millingstone. ManyMortars and Pestles
stone mortars and millingstones that are found in our collections today are large artifacts found in fencerows. The large stone mortars show deep circular usewear evidence that make this artifact easy to identify.

Some of these well worn large stone mortars found today may not be of Native American in origin. Contact Period settlers used the mortar and pestle also. Before the advent of gristmills settlers

used the mortar and pestle to reduce grains such as corn or wheat into meal and flour. Meat, fruit, nuts and berries were also reduced and then utilized in food processing. I would liken the ancient mortar and pestle to our modern day food processor. The difference would be the form of energy used which is electric versus “elbow grease”.

Mortars and pestles may be made from stone or wood. The stone mortars may be permanently located in bedrock or be transportable. Mobility of the occupation was probably a key factor in determining which was used. Native Americans in California that utilized the acorn as a primary food source used mortars that were embedded in large boulders close to oak groves. They did not have to travel far from the occupation to visit the oak groves that supplied them with nuts. A mortar and pestle was used to reduce the meat of the nuts into flour. Eastern Woodland Amerinds on the other hand were hunter-gatherers that were more mobile. They would probably use a mortar and pestle that could be used at different occupations. In some cases lithic mortars would be left at seasonal camps and occupations and then reused when the inhabitants returned.

Evidence indicates the Eastern Woodland Amerinds began to use the larger mortars during the advent of horticulture. These new garden crops caused them to become more sedentary in order to plant and
nurture and then harvest their gardens. It also required a larger amount of foodstuffs to be processed. Corn in particular from their gardens required reducing large amounts of corn kernels into meal that became a staple food for many Native Americans.Mortars and Pestles

The wooden mortar was a hardwood piece of log that was usually hollowed out by controlled burning.

The wooden mortar could then hold the necessary amount of foodstuffs needed to be crushed. The function of the wood mortar versus the stone mortar was the same. I would imagine the wooden mortar was easier to manufacture and also lighter to carry. Very few of these wooden mortars have
survived in the Northeast because of acidity in our soil and our climate.

Pestles were also manufactured from stone and wood. From the large number of lithic pestles found at
Native American occupations it appears stone was probably preferred. The large size and the pecking used to shape this lithic cylinder-shaped artifact makes it easy for collectors to find in the field. Even the smaller tube and bell shaped pestles are easy to identify. Very few of the wooden pestles, like the wooden mortars, have survived in the Northeast because of our environment. Mortars and Pestles

The preference of a lithic pestle design rather than wood design makes sense because using a pestle was tedious work and the weight of the stone allowed the better use of energy to be directed to the job at hand. There is evidence that large stone pestles were tied to supple saplings to help reduce fatigue from the up and down motion of crushing foodstuffs. The sapling would act as a spring to reduce the energy to lift the pestle from the mortar. A pestle two to three feet long can get heavy after use for a long period of time. This would be a very innovative modification to increase the efficiency of this simple machine.

Mortars were utilized for different applications. The various sizes of mortars found indicate this possibility. They were also probably used in a multi-purpose role. Their use may have been similar to the mixing bowls used in modern kitchens today. Portable stone mortars retain heat. This could indicate a transportable lithic container that could be used to process, mix, and keep warm a soup, stew, or gruel for family consumption. Mortars without deep circular holes could be used as a serving bowl. The design variation of different mortars points

Mortars and PestlesThe size of a mortar can also give us a clue to its usage. Small mortars, sometimes referred to as cupstones, appear to be used for the manufacture of items needed in a small supply or used on a limited basis. The manufacture of medicine or paint for ceremonial use comes to mind. The pestles used for these smaller mortars could be what we refer to in the Northeast as pebble tools found along the Delaware River. These are water worn miniature replicas of a pestle that show the same morphology and usewear
of a large pestle.


I have included some representative photographs of the mortars and pestles discussed. The bedrock
mortar is located on the grounds of the Easton Public Library. All other mortars are photographed courtesy of the Burley Museum in Nazareth, PA. Note: The wooden mortar had no provenance
and may be historic. All of the other lithic mortars were found in or around the city of Nazareth, Pa.