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Medieval Mortar Mixers Revisited : Basle and Beyond

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Sophie HueglinORCiD



Mechanical mortar mixers are connected with the reintroduction of stone architecture in 8th to 11th century Central Europe. They often appear to have been associated with large building projects commissioned by high ecclesiastical and secular rulers in the High Middle Ages. When a well-preserved example was found on Basle Cathedral Hill, it was an opportunity to both study its function in detail and search for the associated stone building and its contractor. Minute flecks of charcoal in the mortar disc were radiocarbon dated with a high probability to between AD 936 and 1018. Together with rebuilt Late Roman stone structures and an exceptional piece of enamelled gold-work, a potential contractor for the building site comes into focus: Holy Roman Emperor Henry II. Researchers previously believed the northern tip of Cathedral Hill might have been the site of a court of the Frankish Kings. The new finds support this theory and suggest that this court was used and developed by the representatives of the Carolingian and Ottonian dynasties. The second part of the article assesses mortar mixers as a European phenomenon. More than ten years after the last comprehensive overview the number of examples has doubled. More than 60 structures from 38 sites are known between Naples and Newcastle upon Tyne, Brussels and Posen. Technologically different types of devices can be identified. Some characteristics – including a mortar pit with a large diameter – seem to have been limited to a certain period. Written sources provide clues regarding the provenance of the specialist builders themselves. The possible driving powers – man or animal – are also discussed. The broadly based investigation attempts to identify the reasons why these machines flourished at a certain time but were only rarely used before or after.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hueglin S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: ZAM Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters

Year: 2011

Volume: 39

Pages: 189-212

Date deposited: 21/11/2014

ISSN (print): 0340-0824

Publisher: Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH, Bonn