The mortar and pestle bind human beings together over distance, over time and across cultures. It exemplifies the significance which can be found in the mundane and every day. In this article, I reflect on the history and importance of the mortar and pestle and the shared human experiences this device has been involved in. I reflect on how this object’s ‘biography’ can give us pause during these times of quarantine when we feel alone, isolated, locked down by reminding us that we are and always have been together united in our need for comfort, connection and community.
The object I have chosen to contribute to this collection is a granite mortar and pestle. This item is second-hand, bought at a thrift-market in Maastricht which I attended with my father just before the first lockdown in March 2020, when life changed dramatically. This is an item that, for me, holds a deep personal significance. Interestingly, there are some fascinating parallels that can be drawn between my experience of it and its wider social and cultural significance.
Cooking, Culinary Nostalgia and Coping with Loss
This mortar and pestle is important to me because it connects me to my father on an emotional and nostalgic level. Growing up in Australia, I was raised in a household where healthy, aromatic foods inspired by flavours from all over the world were an important part of my everyday life. My father would cook a different meal for us each evening, dedicating hours of his time each day to bring us a different and delicious culinary experience. The recipes he based his creations on were sourced from many different origins; some online, others from cookbooks and yet others from his stockpile of family recipes, techniques and approaches passed down by his mother, either living on in handwritten notes or in his memories. To ensure that I would grow up with the skills I needed to survive and thrive, he made sure to pass many of these recipes, techniques and approaches on to me.
My father and I had both lived in the Netherlands since I started university here in 2017. Due to a combination of personal circumstances and the disruption of the outbreak of COVID-19, my father returned to Australia rather suddenly. That was already more than one year ago. Though I speak to him every week on video calls, like many others at this time I am left separated from one of my dearest loved ones, without knowing when I will be able to see him, hug him and share a meal with him again.
One way in which I have been coping with this is through my cooking. Though I am missing connection with the sensorial aspects of physically sharing the same space as my father: his un-mediated voice, his laughter, his way of moving, when I am cooking I feel his presence is still tangible. This feeling is embodied in a particularly visceral fashion when I use the mortar and pestle, as this style of very physical, hands-on food preparation reminds me of when, as a child, I would watch as he chopped or crushed herbs and vegetables, tenderised meat, prepared spice mixes and marinades, or rolled out pastry. Pulverising, grinding and mixing herbs and spices in my mortar and pestle gives me a feeling that I am somehow continuing a culinary tradition of sorts. In fact, I might be right in more ways than one.
A Shared Heritage with Humankind
Mortar and pestles have a long and multifaceted history. In archaeological and cultural heritage circles some scholars argue that analysing the material, practical and social uses and cultural meanings of objects, as well as the journeys they have been on in the hands of different owners, can tell us much about what makes them significant and impactful for people. Scholar Anthony Harding (2016) conceptualises the term ‘object biographies’, stating that in order to understand why objects are important to us, we must look at how they are entangled into our lives. This biographical way of understanding objects entails examining their lifecycle; aspects such as what shared history we have with them, what ‘status’ they have held within different contexts of use in society, and what happens to this object once it is no longer useful (Harding, 2016). As objects, mortar and pestles have a long-running and deep connection to many cultures, in which they have been meaningful and vital in a wide variety of social and cultural practices and contexts. Though there are many potentially interesting aspects one could dwell on about the mortar and pestle in this arena, there are some in particular which are poignant in relation to the one I have digitised.
As stated, my mortar and pestle is a second-hand object. It is hefty as one would expect from something made from stone, but small enough to be carried in one hand. It is smooth, perfectly symmetrical and polished in appearance. The fact it was picked up cheaply at a thrift market, and that it bears no maker’s mark to identify it, leads me to believe it is mass-produced. It’s place of origin, previous owner(s), previous uses and age are all unknown. As with many previously owned things, it came without the stories which make up its history, and without access to sophisticated carbon-dating equipment or the insights of some kind of stone-masonry experts, these features will likely remain a mystery.
Interestingly, the mystery surrounding the backstory my own mortar and pestle reflects the history of its kin. The origin of the mortar and pestle is sure to be ancient. The oldest medical record citing the use of a mortar and pestle for pharmacological purposes, the Ebers papyrus, dates back to c. 1550BC (Angus, 2016). It is estimated that mortar and pestles were used for food preparation for many thousands of years before this, with the oldest known devices dating at over 35,000 years old (Wright, 1991). Across this long history the mortar and pestle has been a staple in the daily lives and practices of many cultures and has come in many different shapes, sizes and materials; with some beings small, narrow and wooden such as this Central African example from the Horniman Museum, others hefty, wide and raised on legs such as this basalt Iron age example from the Israel Museum, or metallic, polished and ornate like this Mediterreanean bronze example held by the Smithsonian. Such examples demonstrate how mortar and pestles have been cast in different materials, shapes and sizes throughout to meet a variety of needs medicinal, culinary and agricultural in nature.
Examples like these also show that the mortar and pestle is a device that cannot be said to have one distinct birthplace, or perhaps more accurately, it appears to be an invention that occurred separately and seemingly independently in communities and cultures all over the world. No one culture can claim it, yet at the same time, all cultures can. One could say that there is no maker’s mark on this object. Alternatively, one could argue that the maker’s mark on the mortar and pestle belongs to humankind. There is a widely noted theory in the scientific world called simultaneous invention, where more than one person invents precisely the same design as another person on the other side of the world, each independently of the other (Lubowitz et al., 2018). We can see this in many inventions from the bow and arrow to the theory of natural selection, and it is also the case with the mortar and pestle. Indeed, this shared heritage humanity has with this device is one of its most interesting features.
Care, Comfort and Connection: the Mortar and Pestle as a Symbol
Today it is still used by a select number of medical specialists, yet one of its main functions is as a powerful symbol for health and medicine. This symbolic power comes partly from the stability and universality of its presence in humankind’s history all over the world. But why may this have occurred? What about the mortar and pestle is so significant that it has become a staple in so many cultures? An answer may lie again in its history of uses as an object. Across the world, mortars and pestles have been used to crush, grind, mix, hull and prepare an assortment of herbs, spices, grains, seeds, minerals and other ingredients used for purposes such as alchemy, cosmetics, art, medicine and cuisine. These of course all represent fundamental needs shared in human experience: human beings want to explore, to feel beautiful, to be healthy and to be nourished by good, delicious food. Many of these practices, especially regarding cooking, are passed on by families and communities, being adopted, adapted and refined by each generation to match their needs and tastes. As the mortar and pestle remains a powerful symbol for medicine, it also remains one signifying the care, love and comfort found in the carefully prepared, much practised, hereditary family recipe.
The mortar and pestle binds human beings together over distance, over time and across cultures. It exemplifies the significance which can be found in the mundane and the everyday. Reflecting on such global connections and similarities in human experiences can give us pause and relief during these times when we feel alone, isolated, locked down, by reminding us that we are and always have been together united in our need for comfort, connection and community. Whether we are separated by just a few kilometres or entire oceans, the flavours of home will always connect us.
Angus, K. (2016, January 13). Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/01/mortar-pestle-object-lesson/423852/
Harding, A. (2016). Introduction: Biographies of Things. Distant Worlds Journal. No 1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.11588/dwj.2016.1.30158
Lubowitz, J. H., Brand, J. C., & Rossi, M. J. (2018). Two of a Kind: Multiple Discovery aka Simultaneous Invention is the Rule. Arthroscopy : The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery : Official Publication of the Arthroscopy Association of North America and the International Arthroscopy Association, 34(8), 2257–2258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arthro.2018.06.027
Wright, K. (1991). “The Origins and Development of Ground Stone Assemblages in Late Pleistocene Southwest Asia” (PDF). Paléorient. 17(1): 19–45. doi:10.3406/paleo.1991.4537.
Bar-Hama, A. (n.d.). Mortar and pestle [Photograph]. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/369486
Mortar and Pestle [Photograpy]. National Museum of American History, Washington D.C., United States. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_994075.
Pestle (food processing & storage); Mortar (food processing & storage) [Photograph]. Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, England. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.horniman.ac.uk/object/1970.40/.