Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle

The culinary tools still look more or less the same as they did in their earliest days: an Object Lesson.

If you own a mortar and pestle, pick it up off its shelf and take a look at it: the curved lip, the deep bowl. Feel the thick, oblong weight of the pestle in your palm. More often than not, these things are hefty, made of smooth marble, or wood that brings the hidden pattern of the tree’s grain to the surface. There are porcelain mortar-and-pestle sets, as fussily Victorian as rosebud-lipped dolls, and sets blown from clear or jewel-toned glass. There are rough basalt molacajetes made from the detritus of ancient volcanoes.

Throughout their long history, mortars and pestles have varied dramatically in size, style, and material depending on their purpose. Chemists and pharmacists, for example, have traditionally used small porcelain sets for trituration, the process of grinding chemical compounds. In parts of the Middle East, meat is pounded into kibbeh in mortars two or three feet wide. The Chalon and Mutsun people in California’s Salinas Valley ground up acorns and grains by carving shallow depressions into bedrock. In Papua New Guinea, pestles are often carved into elaborate birds’ heads; the Taino, an indigenous tribe in the Caribbean, used small figures endowed with enormous phalli. Still, the essential elements of design remain the same: a bowl and a club, used to crush and grind.

And modern-day mortars and pestles, no matter the composition, connect their owners to this ancient culinary and material history. The design has changed very little over the past several millennia: When you use it to grind spices into powder or make food into paste, you’re using essentially the same tool as the Aztecs, the Celts, the Sioux, the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Romans, to name just a few. Six-thousand-year-old molacajetes discovered in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley are nearly identical to what a waiter might use to mix guacamole in a contemporary Mexican restaurant. The mortar and pestle offer a rare example of a stable technology, surviving thousands of years without significant refinement.

But while the design has remained more or less static across time and space, the uses for the mortar and pestle have changed significantly. While today’s iterations are viewed as tools for serious cooks (or at least those aspiring to become serious), some ancient cultures treated them as indispensable, go-to tools for preparing grain. The books of  Exodus and Numbers, for example, both describe how the wandering Israelites, after gathering manna from the desert, would prepare it in their mortars. (This purpose hasn’t disappeared entirely, though—some survivalists and off-the-grid purists still endorse the merits of grinding grain with a mortar and pestle, choosing to pound their morning oats into porridge as they await societal collapse.)

The medicinal uses of the mortar and pestle have similarly changed over time from ubiquitous items to specialty tools. The two items were once a key part of health care delivery: They’re mentioned in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (the oldest preserved medical text, dating to 1550 B.C.E.); in Satire VII, the Roman poet Juvenal describes their role in preparing medicinal ointments and tinctures. The mortar and pestle are painted onto apothecary shelves in Italian frescoes and illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries. They were so integral to the development of pharmacology that in 2005, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia hosted an exhibition of mortars and pestles, showcasing their multiple roles as practical tools, historical objects, and pieces of art. In many labs today, scientists still use mortars and pestles to grind chemicals into powder. But while some specialty pharmacies still use them to compound medicines, their role in the pharmaceutical industry is now more symbolic than practical: Some drugstores (including, at one point, Walgreens) use the image of a mortar and pestle in their signs.

For the vast majority of us, though, the mortar and pestle’s primary use is in cooking. In part, the mortar and pestle remain timeless because their design still works, but their appeal in the kitchen extends beyond usefulness and into ritual. Modern kitchens are stocked with gleaming machines, ready at the press of a button to shred fresh herbs or to systematically churn seeds into dust. But by applying muscle to transform ingredients into paste or powder, the mortar and pestle help the cook form a bond with his or her food. These two tools on the shelf, inseparable partners, promise work, intimacy, and an elegant testament to the staying power of simple things.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.