Men at work: Grinding stone production in northern Ethiopia
It is necessary to access the oral forms of local histories often held in traditional African communities to help us understand the African past and avoid framing interpretations solely in terms of Western epistemologies. Ethnoarchaeological fieldwork was carried out in villages in the Gulo Makeda region of northeastern Tigrai, northern Ethiopia where access to mechanical mills has only been available in the last few decades. Individuals in this area still have knowledge and memory of manufacturing, using and discarding grinding stones. Interviews were held with male advisors who shared their knowledge and expertise about the full process of manufacturing grinding stones. To move beyond understanding just the technical aspects of grinding stone manufacturing (what and how), the theory and methods associated with the chaîne opératoire and design theory were incorporated into the research to allow discovery of intricate socio-economic interrelationships (how and why) that exist through grinding manufacture within this culture. Manufacturing offers opportunities for socialization, cooperation and community engagement.
Through ethnoarchaeology it became clear that the manufacturing of grinding stones in northeastern Tigrai is a complex process requiring design decisions, skills, knowledge, and social interaction that builds interpersonal relationships. By arranging two separate manufacturing sessions, one with experts and one with non-experts, comparisons were made of technological and social differences between experts and non-experts. The individuals who are experts in manufacturing grinding stones made higher quality grinding stones than the non-experts. The experts are also afforded a special respect by others, as they are the creators of the technology “necessary for life” in a culture traditionally dependent on cereal flours for sustenance. Potentially this respect for experts could be true for the past as well. Since the grinding stone artifacts from Mezber are large stones, likely meant to produce significant amounts of flour, they would have been important to daily life. Those who manufactured these tools important for subsistence would likely have been considered important individuals in the community.
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