Monday, October 4, 2010


Pestle: a usually club-shaped implement for pounding or grinding substances in a mortar. (Merriam-Webster)

Ted Keir discusses mortars and pestles in one of SRAC's Learning Modules

"There grew in North America, at the time of its discovery by Columbus, a profusion of seeds, nuts, and roots of various kinds, developing according to climate from northern Canada to southern Arizona. Man found these a valuable addition to his food-supply, and he made use of many of them that we of to-day should consider unpalatable. He procured shell-fish of various kinds both salt and fresh water; he knew the properties of many roots, bulbs, barks, and other plants. With the exception of such molluscs as he ate, and his fresh meat, the greater bulk of his food-supply was in the form of kernels, or grains, or bulbs, or nuts, which must needs be reduced to meal, or stripped of husks, or cracked and broken. To convert the raw food into palatable flour, he used both wooden and stone pestles in flat, oval, or round mortars, the form varying in different parts of the country." (Moorehead:1910)

Warren K. Moorehead went on to classify stone pestles in his "Stone Age of North America" in the following manner:

(a) Elongated, plain.

(b) Elongated, ridged or ornamented.

(c) Bell-shaped.

(d) With flat surfaces (mano stones).

I cannot help but add an important addendum to Moorehead's list as Louise Welles Murray did in 1921 when reporting for our region - which we will classify as type (e) - the unwieldy (giant) pestle:

"Considerable data is available as to Algonkian culture, and Algonkian sites are easily identified by the long (elongated) pestle, steatite dish, chipped grooved axe, stemmed and notched points, ceremonial and "problematical" artifacts of early days...but to whom but mighty men belong the large chipped tomahawk, the unwieldy pestle, and the grooved axe I3 inches long?" - (Murray:1921)
And if we are going to use size as a defining feature for categorization, I would also like to add one more type that is on display at SRAC as well, being the miniature pestle, which we will refer to here as type (f).

Using the SRAC collection of local artifacts and with help from the NYS Museum, I will try to cover each category as best I can as representation of our region of the Twin Tier Region of southeastern NY and northeastern PA.

Pestle Type A: Elongated, plain.
This is the most common type of pestle found in the Twin Tier Region of NY and PA. Sometimes also referred to as "roller pestles" they have a rounded edge and look as if they could have been used to roll out ancient flat-breads long ago. These are so common in our region that some collectors claim they do not even pick them up if they see them in a newly plowed field in the spring anymore...And for this reason I want to remind everyone that all items showing use from ancient times are evidence and should be treated as such at all times.

In fact there is some discussion that pestles should not be soaked and/or washed if they are to be used in current research. By analyzing starch residue in ancient grinding tools and charred remains in cooking pots, researchers are learning new things about the ancient cultures who used these tools. In fact, Jon Hart of the NYS Museum has presented at SRAC a very important work using residue in cooking pottery to unravel mysteries about Iroquoian life a thousand years ago. In it he claims:

"Paleoethnobotanists are increasingly turning to the microbotanical record. Recent analysis of phytolith (a small opaline rock consisting chiefly of fossil plant remains) assemblages from charred cooking residues on pottery sherds in central New York recovered using 209 rondel phytolith variables has identified maize as early as 2270 ± 35 B.P." - (Hart:2009)

In the video above, Ted shows you the average size of the pestles that are commonly found in our region. As Ted points out, it is not uncommon to see polished areas on these pestles that look as if they were used as a wet stone to sharpen blades or other stone tools as well.

SRAC Collection

Other pestles of this type in the SRAC collections are very polished and it is doubtful to me at least that they were used in preparing food...The squared edged polished pestle shown below is rare for us to see in our region, and may or may not be actually better categorized in the next type of pestles that we are going to discuss...

SRAC Collection

Pestle Type B: Elongated, ridged or ornamented.
This type of pestle is not common in our region. In fact I asked the NYS Museum for a photo to use in this article to even be able to give you an example. Please note that this image is copyrighted and that all photographs of NYS Museum artifacts may be used solely for research purposes - for any other purpose you'll need to request official permission.

NYS Museum: bear head effigy pestle; grey; 1 foot long, 2" diam across head - 2 1/4" across base

Rock art specialist and author, Ed Lenik states that "effigy pestles probably date from Late Woodland (Ceramic) to Historic Contact periods (ca 1000 b.p. - 400 b.p.) It appears that bear effigy pestles were not utilized as domestic grinding tools but were fetishes or guardian spirits of the women" (Lenik:2002)

The first time that I ever saw one of these was just a few years ago when SRAC representatives Ted Keir, Susan Fogel and I went to the NYS Museum and were given a tour to include a chance to photo all artifacts in their collection from our area. Once we had spent literally hours to that end, we then went around and looked at some other items. These pestles with effigies really caught my eye and have remained an oddity of interest. Since then I have talked with collectors from the Hudson Valley that have several of these types of pestles. As I have stated, I am no specialist on these artifacts, but simply by looking on Google quickly it seems that these effigy pestles were found mostly along the North Atlantic coastline region.

When I scoured my files one last time for references for this posting, I came acrossed one reference from Louise Welles Murray that refers to a site just south of Nichols on the PA side of the border that may just have had one of these types of pestles:

"There are many steatite fragments, as a rule found near or on the hill, also many stone implements, pecked and chipped, and every type of celt. Hoes, long pestles (one with a supposed bird effigy at the end), and large mortars show agricultural habits." (Murray:1921)
Because the private collector that found this artifact so long ago did not preserve it or have a photo taken or even record its existence beyond this word of mouth notation made by Murray, we will never know for sure if this was an actual effigy pestle or not. However, the NYS Museum does have a bird effigy pestle in their collection said to be in exhibit quality, so at least we know bird effigy pestles did exist and were also found in NY state. (OTSEGO COUNTY)

Other recorded types of ornamented pestles include phallic and human effigies and pestles with ridges carved around their edges that are more commonly found in the western regions of North America. I am not familiar with any of these, however, the NYS Museum does state that they do have 2 phallic effigy pestles in their collection of exhibit quality.

Pestle Type C:
The bell-shaped pestles are alot more common in the Midwest than in our region, but they do appear on our sites from time to time. We have a handful on exhibit at SRAC currently, with one (the one on the right) specifically found at Spanish Hill, in South Waverly, PA.

SRAC Collection

From what I have read, bell shaped pestles have three basic shapes, having either a flat base, rounded base, or a pointed base. In the photo above, the one on the left would be a rounded based pestle (there is a rounded edge around the base), while the one on the right is a flat based version.

The NYS Museum reports that they have 4 exhibit quality bell pestles. (1 - ERIE COUNTY, 2 - LIVINGSTON COUNTY, and one unknown origin)

Pestle Type D: With flat surfaces (mano stones).

After re-inventorying our SRAC collection of thousands of artifacts on display, I found that flat sided pestles are more common than I thought in in our region... These were supposedly used on the end but also were used to mash or mull with their flat sides. As you can see by this pestle from the SRAC/Cowles Collection, the wear shows up in both the end and the flat sided area.

SRAC Collection

Mortar and flat-sided (mano) pestle

Pestle Type E: Unwieldy (giant).

Louise Welles Murray reported many "over-sized" artifacts in our locality and reported at the infamous site found in her own garden (The Murray Garden) in 1883 there were "two pestles, one large and unwieldy but easily used by the big men here buried."

At first, you might think that she was just exaggerating, but the truth is that the giant pestles in this category are actually too big to be used simply by a woman pounding with it to grind corn. A closer look at the pestle shown below reveals that it has a notched end supposedly to be strapped to a tree limb to help with the otherwise back breaking mechanics of trying to pound using this huge stone tool.

SRAC Collection

After taking inventory, I found that huge pestles in the SRAC collection are actually pretty common for our region, but the notched feature of the pestle shown above is not. However, until one of our members brought in one that he had found just a few weeks ago, I hadn't noticed what actually is a common feature for these giant pestles. One end of each that we have in our collections is broken or cut halfway. See the image below to see what I mean...

SRAC Member Lon Kouterick

SRAC Collection

At first I thought that this feature was just a common way that such a large pestle would break, but when you look closer, there seems to be signs of this area being worked.

SRAC Collection

Whatever the actual cause is for this peculiar feature on of all of our giant pestles, I thought it worthwhile to note it here.

Pestle Type F: Miniature.
What the purpose of these little pestles were - I am not sure - some say they were used with paint pots, but I see no staining on any of the ones at SRAC. At any rate they are quite common in our region and I wanted to make sure to note them in this report.

Note there is also a miniature flat sides pestle as well.

SRAC Collection

Personally I doubt that we will ever know all of the uses that these artifacts here were used for. The truth is that many chefs today still use a mortar and pestle, as do doctors/pharmacists and others, and I would propose that there were at least as many uses (and users) for mortars and pestles centuries ago as there are today.

What do you think? Please send your comments by using the Comments area below.

If you like this article you may also like:

Discoidal Stones:

Stone Drills:


Unidentified Artifacts with Holes:


Hart 2009:The use of multiple discriminant analysis in classifying prehistoric phytolith assemblages recovered from cooking residues
Authored Jon Hart, PhD; co-authored with R. G. Matson
Published: Journal of Archaeological Science, 2009

Lenik 2002: Picture Rocks : American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands
Authored by: Ed Lenik
Published: University Press of New England 2002

Moorehead 1910: Stone Age In North America
Published: Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910

Murray 1921: Aboriginal Sites in and near "Teaoga," Now Athens, Pennsylvania
Authored by: Louise Welles Murray
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1921), pp. 268-297

Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

Special thanks to the NYS Museum for granting me use of the image of the bear effigy pestle and list of exhibit quality pestles.


  1. During excavations at 36Pi4 (Manna Site)in the Upper Delaware Valley we recovered a pestle very much like the "bear effigy" type you picture from the NY state museum. Unfortunately it had eroded out of a steep bank so its precise context could not be determined. It is likely from a Late Woodland or historic/contact context - we have evidence of both from excavated contexts. There are also Late Archaic through Middle Woodland depositrs on-site.

    The pestle is in the process of being shaped by pecking but you can see the "face" of the animal beginning to take shape.

    Pecked stone technology first appears in the Delaware Valley during Middle to Late Archaic times, as do moderately large stone pestles, but in questionable contexts (Kraft 2001:113). The angle of the head of the Manna Site artifact resembles the treatment of the heads of pestles that Kraft (2001:285) pictures as part of Late Woodland assemblages. While this is extreme speculation, the shape of the head of the Manna Site artifact also bears some resemblance to the head of “a manitou of the Indians” illustrated by Goddard (1978:233, Figure 16) and representing a carving found “over the door of a Delaware house before 1731” (Goddard 1978:233).

    Goddard, Ives
    1978 Delaware. In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, pp.213-239. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.

    Kraft, Herbert C.
    2001 The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Lenape Books, Stanhope, New Jersey.

    Michael Stewart
    Department of Anthropology
    Temple University
    Philadelphia, PA 19122

  2. Ed Lenik, Rock Art Specialist edlenik@hotmail.comOctober 13, 2010 at 3:57 PM


    I enjoyed reading the recent posting on pestles. Here are two additional references for your files:

    Schoolcraft, Henry R.



    Plates 21,22. “The mode of pounding maize, by suspending the stone pestle from the limb of a tree as practiced by the Pennacooks of the Merrimac Valley in New Hampshire, is represented in Plate 21. The pestle was commonly ornamented by the head of a man or quadruped, neatly carved from graywacke, or compact sandstone, the mortar being also of the same material...”


    Page 467: “In Fig. 1, Plate 33, we observe the family name of one of the owners of these antique pestles, formerly used for crushing maize, ingeniously wrought, by a symbol on the head of the instrument. The substance employed is a species of graywacke. the symbol ,or totemic device, is a deer, apparently a faun (sic). Its locality is Massachusetts.

    Ed Lenik

    Rock Art Specialist