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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: An engraving depicting several types of mortars. On the left is a man in a skirt, holding with both hands a stick of about his own height and about to bring it down into a conical container about knee-high to him. On the right, the cross-sections of a deep conical mortar and a shallow bowl with handles.]

 p768  Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp768‑769 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

MORTARIUM, also called PILA and PILUM (Plin. H. N. XVIII.3; Plin. H. N. XXXIII.26), (ὄλμος; ἔγδη, Schol. in Hes. Op. et Dies, 421; ἔγδις, apparently from the root of icere, to strike), a mortar.

Before the invention of mills [Mola] cornº was pounded and rubbed in mortars (pistum), and hence the place for baking bread, or the bake-house, was called pistrinum (Serv. in Virg. Aen. I.179). Also long after the introduction of mills this was an indispensable article of domestic furniture (Plaut. Aul. I.2.17; Cato, de Re Rust. 74‑76; Colum. de Re Rust. XII.55). Hesiod (l.c.) enumerating the wooden utensils necessary to a farmer, directs him to cut a mortar three feet, and a pestle (ὑπερον, κοπάνον, pistillum) three cubits long. Both of these were evidently to be made from straight portions of the trunks or branches of trees, and the thicker and shorter of them was to be hollowed. They might then be used in the  p769 manner represented in a painting on the tomb of Remesesº III at Thebes (see woodcut, left-hand figure taken from Wilkinson, vol. II p383); for there is no reason to doubt that the Egyptians and the Greeks fashioned and used their mortars in the same manner (see also Wilkinson, vol. III p181, showing three stone mortars with metal pestles). In these paintings we may observe the thickening of pestle at both ends, and that two men pound in one mortar, raising their pestles alternately as is still the practice in Egypt. Pliny (H. N. XXXVI.43) mentions the various kinds of stone selected for making mortars, according to the purposes to which they were intended to serve. Those used in pharmacy were sometimes made, as he says, "of Egyptian alabaster." The annexed woodcut shows the forms of two preserved in the Egyptian collection of the British Museum, which exactly answer to this description, being made of that material. They do not exceed three inches in height; the dotted lines mark the cavity within each. The woodcut also shows a mortar and pestle, made of baked white clay, which were discovered, A.D. 1831, among numerous specimens of Roman pottery in making the northern approaches to London-bridge (Archaeologia, vol. XXIV p199, plate 44).

Besides the uses already mentioned, the mortar was employed in pounding charcoal, rubbing it with glue, in order to make black paint (atramentum, Vitruv. VII.10 ed. Schneider); in making plaster for the walls of apartments (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.55); in mixing spices and fragrant herbs and flowers for the use of the kitchen (Athen. IX.70; Brunck, Anal. III.51); and in metallurgy, as in triturating cinnabar to obtain mercury from it by sublimation (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.41, XXXIV.22).

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Page updated: 31 Mar 09