For May’s Object of the Month, we’re ‘on the grind’ with this large bronze mortar from our collection.

This mortar dates from 1735 and was cast in bronze. It has a decorative band around the middle, with the date and initials ‘R I’. Unfortunately, we don’t know where the mortar is from or where it was originally cast, but it was probably at a bell foundry, which could deal with casting larger amounts of metal and moving the heavy weight.

A mortar is a container, usually a bowl, that is used with a club-shaped object called a pestle to crush or grind substances into a fine paste or powder. The mortar and pestle are characteristically made of hardwood, stone, metal, or ceramic.

The fact this mortar made from bronze is significant. The disadvantage of bronze is that it reacts with acidic materials and can be damaged as a result. The inside surface was often treated to try and prevent this, but the very nature of its use meant that this was damaged over time. 

A green powdery fungal-like substance forms on the metal, called ‘bronze disease’. This will eventually eat away at the metal until it is dissolved. It is a common problem for archaeologists when trying to preserve ancient artefacts.

Metal mortars are still used today. They can be cleaned with rice, which is repeatedly milled until a batch comes out white.  Ceramic replaced metal due to its inert qualities, especially when needed for pharmacy work.

Larger pestle and mortars are still often used mainly to dehusk grain, rather than in direct food preparation or medicines. This is the most likely use for this mortar, although it is possible it was used when preparing larger quantities of plant-based materials for pharmaceutical use. The large size of this mortar means it was probably used on the floor with a long pestle that could be held in both hands.

The mortar is currently on display in our library, on the windowsill near our collection of classic literature. Why not come and see it for yourself?


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