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The Iron Age grinding stones and other stone
objects from Tel Zayit, Israel



Hundreds of querns and mills have been recovered and recorded from all stratigraphic phases at the site Tel Zayit (1999-2011) during the nine excavation seasons. The site’s occupation spans 3500 years, from the 2nd millennium BC until the Ottoman period. This paper focuses on 107 grinding stones collected in strata dated securely to Iron Age II (10th-7th centuries BC) based on pottery analyses and radiocarbon datings.

The analysis of the Tel Zayit Iron Age GST (ground-stone tools) assemblage allows identifying food processing tools and techniques as well as preferences related to other tools and objects which altogether represent a wide array of functions. Although the different GSTs and objects presented here are commonly associated with domestic cereal grinding, ethnographic research points to a broader pattern of use (e.g., Ebeling & Rowan 2004, 109). The objectives of the current study are thus to present the data in a coherent manner and compare the Tel Zayit assemblage to other contemporary assemblages in the Shephelah and other regions. A detailed discussion will follow the description of the tools.

Tel Zayit – Location and Excavations

Tel Zayit is located on a mound in the Guvrin Valley of the Shephelah in southwestern Israel. The 3-hectare site (Fig. 1) is nearly 30 km east of Ashkelon and roughly halfway between Lachish to the south and Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi to the north (Fig. 2). The mound rises steeply from its surroundings. Around 20 m of its height consists of stratified cultural remains spanning at least 3500 years. Following a surface survey in 1998, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary initiated an excavation in1999 under the direction of one of the authors of the current study (R. Tappy) with work focusing on the acropolis (Area A), the lower tell (Area L) and the eastern slope (Area T, step trench).

Aerial photograph from the east of Tel Zayit toward the coast (Sky View Air Photography, courtesy of R. E. Tappy, The Zeitah Excavations).
Fig. 1. Aerial photograph from the east of Tel Zayit toward the coast
(Sky View Air Photography, courtesy of R. E. Tappy, The Zeitah Excavations).
Map of the study area and sites cited in the text (J. Rosenberg, Jerusalem).
Fig. 2. Map of the study area and sites cited in the text
(J. Rosenberg, Jerusalem).

The features from the Iron Age II (10th-7th centuries BC), oriented NW-SE include a public structure with pits as well as other domestic elements (the newly established Iron IIA settlement was subsequent to a 200-year occupation gap). A noteworthy find from this phase is the celebrated abecedary inscribed on the base of heavy limestone mortar discovered in secondary position in a wall (Fig. 3).1 All the architectural remains reflect the development of an organised political structure. Although this area generally belonged to the lowlands district of the ancient Judean Kingdom, it is a zone that was often contested with cultural and political associations shifting from time to time, primarily between the highlands to the east and the coastal plain to the west (Tappy 2017). The settlement endured about 300 years until Sennacherib destroyed it in 701 and handed it over to the Philistines. In the decades following this assault, the town saw a revival (at least on a small scale) over the course of the 7th century BC.

The Tel Zayit mortar with the famous abecedary engraved along its base (top: M. Lundberg and B. Zuckerman; bottom; Zev Radovan, Jerusalem).
Fig. 3. The Tel Zayit mortar with the famous abecedary engraved along its base
(top: M. Lundberg and B. Zuckerman; bottom; Zev Radovan, Jerusalem).

Methodology and Terminology

Biblical and classical GST assemblages from the southern Levant until recently have not benefitted from proper collection and publication. Their general typological and technological aspects have likewise not been the subject of research or benefitted from the attention afforded to those dating from either prehistoric or protohistoric periods (for the reasons, see Cohen-Klonymus 2014, 4-6; Rowan & Ebeling 2008, 2). Fortunately, a growing awareness of their importance in recent years has resulted in an upswing of studies, publications and analyses of Iron Age grinding stone assemblages which have served as parallels and references for the current study.2

The GST collection of Tel Zayit was sorted, examined, and classified according to typo-morphological characteristics. Functional similarities of the stone artefacts, when possible, also served as classification factors (see below). Hence the assumption, despite certain morphological variability, was that most slabs served primarily to grind grains. For the same reason, artefacts considered “upper grinding stones” and “abraders/polishers” are distinguished as separate categories based on the morphology of the original blank and on the raw material. It must be also noted that the distinctions between the different categories of tools
are not always obvious, and that GSTs could likewise be multi-functional. Tool types of unknown function are grouped together below primarily for descriptive purposes, though it is likely they performed various tasks (Rowan 2003, 183).

The identification of the raw material was carried out exclusively by the naked eye. The rock types distinguished are basalt (compact and vesicular), limestone/dolomite, chalk, flint (and flint nodules), sandstone, beachrock and kurkar (a type of calcareous sandstone formed by the aggregation of quartz grains in the sand with chalk). The chronological and morphological distribution of these raw materials will be discussed below.

The Assemblage

Grinding stones (n=37; Table 1). Twenty upper stone and 14 lower stone fragments. The highly fragmentary state of three impede identifying their nature. These tools were fashioned from a variety of rock types (see below).

 Grinding stonesOther stone Object  
Rock TypeGrinding stones – upperGrinding stones – lowerGrinding stonesAbraders/polishersCuboidsPoundersMortarsPerforated stones“Slingstones”VessellsVariaTotal%
Basalt – dense   1     2254,7
Basalt –
3511       109,3
Limestone24 72 2091 24744
Beachrock1142        1715,9
Flint11   5    176,5
Flint geode    114     1614,9
Kurkar2          21,9
Sandstone1          10,9
Chlorite       1  110,9
Unidentified          610,9
Total201439319201012 107 
Table 1. Listing of the tool and raw material types from the Iron Age II phases (10th-7th centuries BC) of the site of Tel Zayit.

Upper grinding stones (Fig. 4): These are the upper mobile stones of to and fro querns which served in conjunction with large lower stones and grinding slabs. Most saw unifacial use. The working surfaces are often convex (transversal section) and concave longitudinally due to wear. As they are elongated, the majority bear breaks along their width revealing sections that are plano-convex, trapezoidal or rectangular.

Photographs of grinding stones (different scales).
Fig. 4. Photographs of grinding stones (different scales).

The20 upper grinding stone fragments are of vesicular basalt, beachrock, kurkar, biogenic limestone, flint and sandstone. All are relatively narrow and elongated (facilitating their grasp) and had to be driven with two hands (too large for a single hand).

At least ten of the Tel Zayit upper grinding stones reveal plano-convex cross-sections yielding a “loaf” shape. The two that are complete (Fig. 4: 1-2) are of porous (biogenic) limestone and beachrock weighing respectively 3.22 and 2.360 kg. Another fragment was hewn from predominantly reddish sandstone (Fig. 4: 3) although it features pink, white and especially yellow spots near its grinding surface.

Four additional beachrock quern upper stones reveal triangular profiles (Fig. 4: 4-6) while another two of kurkar and beachrock bear trapezoid profiles (Fig. 4: 7). Their shapes appear to have been altered in ancient times. One which broke reveals an elongated trapezoid profile and traces of smoothing indicating it was subsequently reused as a smaller tool with one hand. The second appears to have originally been the corner of a much larger (and probably lower) loaf shaped grinding stone. After it broke the piece served as an upper stone as evidenced by traces on both its original working surface as well as along its break. The flint example appears to have been much larger than the others (Fig. 4: 8).

The group of upper grinding stones ranges in length from 40 to 84 mm (mean 57 mm) and in width from 82 to 157 mm (mean 128 mm). Although most are fragmentary, it is possible to estimate that when whole they measured from 200-300 mm in length and weighed between 2 and 4 kg.

Lower grinding stones: These are the immobile, nether elements of hand mills. Wright (1992) divided them into grinding slabs where the working motion was longitudinal, and “querns”, when the working motion was rotary or circular. These last at times bear a sort of “shelf” around the edge of their concave working surface. Due to wear, the working surfaces frequently became concave both in the transversal and longitudinal sections. The 14 Tel Zayit lower stonesincludeone complete example and 13 fragments. These fragments reveal a great variety in terms of the morphology and the rock types.

Their rock types are limestones (with high flint content), beachrock and basalt. The complete tool is rectangular with a concave transversal section. Certain including the example of flint (Fig. 4: 9) are elongated and rectangular, two are triangular in profile, while the others seem to have served as “querns” or large grinding slabs. Three of the limestone fragments contain many tiny flint inclusions near the working surface.

The thickness of the lower grinding stones ranges from 48 mm (basalt) to 13 mm (flint) (mean 77 mm) while their width ranges from 127 (limestone) to 300 mm (beachrock) indicating a mean of 211 mm.

Abraders/polishers (n=9; Fig. 5: 1-3): These tools served for rubbing, abrading, polishing and similar activities. Certain were operated directly and not, as in the case of other mechanisms, in conjunction with a second stone. Their shapes vary (discs, domes, and cuboids) and are of a size that fit nicely in the palm of the hand. Most reveal multiple smoothed or polished working surfaces. Ethnographical research indicates that these small tools served for a variety of activities such as crushing temper or pigments, polishing or burnishing other tools or vessels, and even to work hide (Adams 1989). Of the nine Tel Zayit abraders/polishers, two are of basalt and seven of limestone.

Cuboids (n=3; Fig. 5: 4-6): These angular tools, made of limestone with a high flint content, usually have six straight facets (at times even more) measuring about 50 mm in length. They weigh between 180 and 260 grams. Although intentionally shaped but do not demonstrate any further evidence of abrading (or pounding) which would have altered their squarish form. Ilan (2017) and Eitam (2019) suggest that these tools may have been manufactured as scale weights which could subsequently have served as slingstones, abraders or pounders. Indeed, tools with a similar morphologically bearing traces of abrasion/polishing or pounding (evidenced by battering marks or small pits or cavities) were designated as abraders/polishers or pounders.

Photographs of abraders/polishers and cuboids.
Fig. 5. Photographs of abraders/polishers and cuboids.

Other stone objects

Pounders (n=19; fig. 6: 1-9): These tools, also known as hammerstones, are defined primarily by their morphology and traces of wear and flaking scars stemming from continuous use. Most are flint nodules or hard limestone pebbles. They are either spheroid or cuboid and similar in size and weight (mean length of 55 mm for each facet and mean weight ranging from 210-320 g).

Photographs of pounders.
Fig. 6. Photographs of pounders.

Vessels (n=2): The first of this group is a fragment of a basalt bowl with a round base. Its section indicates it to be an Early Bronze or Chalcolithic “open form” bowl (Rowan 1998, 257-265). The second is a fragment of a base of a compact basalt bowl with a very smooth interior, which may have functioned as a shallow mortar (Hovers 1996, 176; see Squitieri 2017 for more about Iron Age stone vessels). The products they processed were limited in size and may have included pigments, shells, salt and herbs (Katz 2012, 493).

Mortars (n=20; Fig. 7: 1-8): This group consists of 20 limestone mortars, notably one of biogenic limestone. Thirteen are small to medium portable mortars of varying shape (Fig. 7: 1-6). The diameter of their sockets ranges from 90-150 mm, with depths from 20 to 64 mm while their weight ranges from 1.8 to approx. 8 kg. These are well rounded oval pebbles and cobbles with large, smoothed depressions (for parallels see Eirikh-Rose 2009, 181). They served for pounding, an action that could have been carried out with either large stones or wooden pestles (Wright 1992, 65-67).

Seven other large mortars where hewn from limestone boulders and bear deep sockets (Fig. 7: 7-8). Parallels published in the studies by Cohen-Klonymus (2014, 65), Eisenberg (2012, 53) and Eirikh-Rose (2009, 181) reveal very little or no sign of outer modification. The socket diameter ranges from 134 to 190 mm and their depths from 50 to 140 mm. Certain weigh more than 20 kg. These clearly served for heavy pounding in conjunction with long wooden pestles, perhaps from a standing position.

Photographs of mortars.
Fig. 7. Photographs of mortars.

Perforated stones (n=10; Fig. 8: 1-3): These artefacts bear at least one perforation. Six were hardly worked and the perforations appear to be natural, though often straightened or widened. These may have served for different types of scales which needed different sizes of suspension weights. The others were meticulously and intentionally shaped into large or small rings. Two large cases with biconical perforations were discovered at Tel Zayit (e.g., Fig. 8: 1). Similar items are known from various sites and time frames, although their function(s) remain far from understood (Adams 2002, 203; Cohen-Klonymus 2014: 90; Rosenberg & Greenberg 2014: 202; Rowan 2003: 189). Two symmetrical and invested small stone rings, of different materials, were also unearthed at Tel Zayit (Fig. 8: 2-3) and commonly referred to as spindle whorls (Shamir 2003). One, possibly made of chlorite, reveals a small dome shaped perforation with a flat striated base (a chlorite spindle whorl dating to the Iron IIB was discovered at Lachish; Sass 2004, 9-10, fig. 28).

Small round stones (n=1): One small oblate limestone stone devoid of traces of abrasion or pounding could potentially be a slingstone.

Varia (n=6): These comprise several items and fragments which could not be grouped into any of the above categories. They include an incense burner (Fig. 8: 4), possible fragments of grinding stones and a quartz geode (“Elijah’s Apple”).

Photographs of perforated stones and varia.
Fig. 8. Photographs of perforated stones and varia.

Discussion and Conclusions

Grinding was clearly a key technique in food processing throughout all the periods of Tel Zayit. It is noteworthy that while basalt served almost exclusively for the grinding tools at Iron Age sites of northern Israel, the southern sites in the vicinity of Tel Zayit saw a wider variety of raw materials including beachrock, kurkar, sandstone, limestone and flint (e.g., Cohen-Klonymus 2014, 46; Cohen-Weinberger 2001, 228; Sass 2004). Indeed, most of the tools at Tel Zayit were manufactured from local or nearby outcrops. The fact that close to 50% of the upper and lower grinding stones unearthed in Iron Age strata were hewn from beachrock clearly points to a preference in the choice of materials. The presence of this rock type is greater here than at other contemporary sites in the region (Table 2).3

Tel ZahitUpper315%1155%210%15%15%210%  20
Lower536%429%429%  17%    14
Unknown133%267%          3
Total924%1746%616%13%25%25%  37
LachishUpper919%3267%24%510%    4 52
Lower933%415%14%  311%  1 28
Unknown1653%723%517%  27%  11 41
Total3436%4345%88%55%55%0 16 111
Tel’ EtonUpper325%  758%18%18%    12
Lower150%  150%        2
Total429%  857%17%17%    14
Tel BatashUpper4446%2526%2526%22%    2 98
Lower675%225%          8
Total5048%2726%2524%22%    2 106
Tel es-SafiUpper2352%1943%  25%    3 47
Lower873%327%   0%      11
Total3156%2240%  24%    3 58
Khirbet QeiyafaUpper930%  1033%620%517%  3 33
Lower417%  1458%  625%  2 26
Total1324%  2444%611%1126%  5 59
Table 2. Rock types serving for grinding stones from a selection of Iron Age II sites from the Shephelah region.

The basalt outcrops nearest Tel Zayit are in the Transjordan (about 60 km to the east) and in Wadi Farah (about 80 km to the northeast). Other outcrops are farther away in the Galilee and in the Golan Heights (Sneh et al. 1998). Despite the functional advantages of basalt, its weight and difficulty in handling as either a raw material or in product form must have rendered transport expensive and time-consuming. Since the beachrock grinding stones were not as durable as the basalt tools and yielded unwanted grit, Neri (1994, 83) has suggested that these tools were adopted as a necessity due to the long distance to the basalt outcrops.4 It is apparent, however, that the superior quality of the basalt rendered these efforts worthwhile (Table 2). For this question see also Cohen-Weinberger (2001, 231), Katz (2012, 495) and Rosenberg et al. (2016).5 This is evidenced at Tel Zayit as basalt served to produce about 25% of the grinding stones (and 15% of all the GSTs).

In general, the shapes and sizes of the grinding stones at Tel Zayit are consistent with those of other Iron Age Shephelah sites6 (see Eirikh-Rose 2009, 173, 179). Since beachrock upper grinding tools appear to follow a standardised norm similar to those of basalt and limestone), Neri suggested (1994, 65) that they were produced somewhere near the coast in the area of the main beachrock outcrops. Neri (1994, 80-81) has likewise commented that beachrock could also have been transported from the inland outcrops of Shephelah. It would thus be erroneous to conclude that the coast was the provenance of the Tel Zayit tools.

Beachrock upper grinding stones appear to have been paired with basalt or limestone lower stones (Neri 1994, 46). Apart from the loaf-shaped models, certain beachrock upper stones reveal trapezoid and triangular profiles (see similar observations in Cohen-Klonymus 2014, 47), while the lower stones were either flat, loaf-shaped or triangular-profiled (Sass 2004, 1993-1999). It is compelling that the quantity of upper stone fragments at Tel Zayit, contrary to figures from other sites (Katz 2012, 494; Cohen-Weinberger 2001, 231), is not much greater than that of the lower stones. Tel Zayit also has yielded two large Mishash flint (upper and a lower) grinding tools (Fig. 4: 8-9) dating to the 10th-9th centuries BC which weigh more than the limestone or basalt tools. Cohen-Klonymus (2014, 16) has noted that such tools were quite rare during the Iron Age.

To conclude, the Iron Age GST assemblage of Tel Zayit dating to the 10th-7th centuries BC, on the whole, and its grinding stones in particular, can be broken down into a complex array of tools. Moreover, the study of its grinding stones of this Iron Age II Shephelah site represents a unique opportunity to comment on questions of raw material provenance and tool morphology and function, and to compare the findings to similar assemblages from other contemporary regional sites.


The study of the Tel Zayit groundstone tools was conducted at the Laboratory for Ground Stone Tool Research at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa. The artefacts were photographed by Zev Radovan and are presented here courtesy of R. E. Tappy director of the Zeitah Excavations. We thank Avraham Faust of Bar-Ilan University for his permission to use unpublished data from the Tel ‘Eton excavations.


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  • Cohen-Weinberger, A. (2001): “Chapter VII: Stone Objects,” in: Mazar, A. and Panitz-Cohen, N. (eds), Timna (Tel Batash) II: The Finds from the First Millenium BCE. Text (Qedem, 49: Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Jerusalem, 225-247.
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  1. The Tel Zayit abecedary sheds light on the evolution of early Hebrew writing. This tool weighing 17.3 kg and measuring 37.5 x 27 x 15 cm bears a grinding surface of 18 x 14 x 7 cm. Its very existence in this area represents an important symbolic statement as to the cultural core in the highlands to the east (Tappy 2008).
  2. Iron Age sites in the Shephelah and Judah benefiting from detailed GST publications include Tel Zayit (Greener and Rosenberg, forthcoming), Tel ‘Eton (Greener, forthcoming), Khirbet Qeiyafa (Cohen-Klonymus 2014), Tel es-Safi/Gath (Katz 2012), Moza (Eirikh-Rose 2009), Lachish (Sass 2004; Sass & Usshishkin 2004), Tel Batash (Cohen-Weinberger 2001) and the City of David in Jerusalem (Hovers 1996).
  3. The study by Neri (1994, 64), devoid of chronological classifications, commented that beachrock made up about 25% of the grinding tools from many sites along the coastal plain, the Shephelah and northern Negev.
  4. It is noteworthy that beachrock tools were found to be more durable than their limestone counterparts (Neri 1994, 92). Neri (1994, 120-125) further hypothesised that Beachrock tools may have served to produce low quality flour for the brewing industry (the grounded product was sieved from the liquid in the process of brewing before the beer was consumed) or to prepare of materials such as temper for the pottery production.
  5. Although beachrock at the Iron Age site of Tel Batash, for example, was readily available, it did not commonly serve to make tools.
  6. Sources: Lachish, Strata III-V (Sass 2004]); Tel ‘Eton (Greener, forthcoming); Tel Batash (Cohen-Weinberger 2001, 228); Tell es-Safi (Katz 2012); Khirbet Qeiyafa (Cohen-Klonymus, Table 4.1.1).
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Comment citer

Greener, Aaron, Tappy, Ron E., Rosenberg, Danny, “The Iron Age grinding stones and other stone objects from Tel Zayit, Israel”, in : Alonso, Natàlia, Anderson, T. J., Jaccottey, Luc,Querns and Mills in Mediterranean Antiquity. Tradition and Innovation during the First Millennium BC, Pessac, Ausonius Éditions, collection DAN@ 12, 2023, 55-65 [en ligne] https://una-editions.fr/stones-and-stone-objects-from-tel-zayit-in-israel/ [consulté le 15/12/2023]
Illustration de couverture • • Dessin d'Aurora Pulido Villegas (www.dboreal.com) ; Quatrième : La Bastida de les Alcusses, 1928 (avec l'aimable autorisation du Museu de Prehistòria de València).
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