Monthly Archives: December 2015

Baba – Hammer and anvil

These are hammer and anvil are the two tools which are today most associated with smiths and metalwork.

An anvil is a block with a hard surface on which another object is struck. The block is as massive as is practical, because the higher the inertia of the anvil, the more efficiently it causes the energy of the striking tool to be transferred to the work piece. On a quality anvil the smith’s hammer should rebound with almost as much energy as the smith put into the downward stroke, making the smith’s job easier. In most cases the anvil is used as a forging tool. Before the advent of modern welding technology, it was a primary tool of metal workers. The great majority of modern anvils are made of cast or forged steel that has been heat treated. Inexpensive anvils have been made of cast iron and low quality steel, but are considered unsuitable for serious use as they deform and lack rebound when struck. But the original anvils were first made of stone as a lithic stone tool, then bronze, and later wrought iron.

A hammer is a tool that delivers a blow (a sudden impact) to an object. Most hammers are hand tools used to drive nails, fit parts, forge metal, and break apart objects. Hammers vary in shape, size, and structure, depending on their purposes.The usual main parts of  a hammer are a head (most often made of steel) and a handle (also called a helve or haft) made of wood or steel.

Hammer and anvil are among the simplest tools imaginable. Because of that they are among the oldest tools used by proto humans and humans. Originally both hammer and anvil were made from stone. As a matter of fact they were just two stones. A roundish stone big enough to fit into a hand (hammer), and a flat heavy stone (anvil). You would then place what ever you wanted to strike with your hammer stone on the anvil stone and you would then hit it with the hammer stone really hard…

Hammer and anvil are such primitive tools that even some animals use them for breaking open nuts and shells. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, capuchin monkeys crack open nuts by using rocks as both hammer and anvil.

Sea otters use stones to crack open shells. They place a flat stone on their chests and use it as an anvil. They then smash the shell against it.

When people started using hammer and anvil they basically did exactly what the chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, capuchin monkeys did. They took a big flat stone (anvil), like this one from Paleolithic site Üçağızlı Cave , Turkey

placed what ever they wanted cracked, smashed, pulverized on it, and then banged that thing with another stone (hammerstone) like this one from Wangfujing Paleolithic Site, Beijing, China.

And people still do that today. I did so many times when I was a kid when I wanted to crack open nuts. Here is a picture of a Berber woman cracking open argan nuts:

The same tools were used for cracking open bones to get the bone marow.

Hammerstones and anvils were not only used for cracking open nuts and bones. They were also used for pounding various materials into a pulp, like nut kernels, acorns, tubers and finally grains. This is a picture an Australian aboriginal woman using hammerstone and anvil to pulverize tubers:

Hammerstone and anvil were used to crack and pulverize acorns and turn them into acorn meal, except that these hammerstones (pestle) and anvil (mortar) had to be slightly different from ordinary hammerstone and anvil. Because we don’t want the pulverized bits to go everywhere, hollowed anvils were used instead of flat ones. Because of the hollow in the anvil, the hammerstone had to be elongated not round, in order to reach the bottom of the anvil hollow.  I wrote about this in my article entitled “Eating acorns“.

As I said eventually these new types of hammerstones and anvils were used for pounding and grinding grains:

Another use of hamerstones and anvils was for making stone tools. The simplest way to create a sharp edge comes from bipolar flaking. All you need is an anvil (large base stone), hammer stone, and a smaller rock (chicken egg size) to crack like you would a nut. Place the egg sized stone upright (pole to pole, hence the term bipolar) on the anvil and strike it with your hammer stone. This crude technique takes little skill and provides sharp tools like scrapers, sharp flakes, and small stone drill points. You could make and use these simple tools even with no flint knapping knowledge.

Even precision flint knapping work is done on a stone anvil. This picture shows rough shaping of a flake into an arrow head using a stone anvil and antler hammer:

Hammerstones eventually evolved into hafted hammerstones. Stones attached to sticks with strips of leather or animal sinew were being used as hammers with handles by about 30,000 BCE during the middle of the Paleolithic. This is one of these “advanced” hafted hammers with a handle mostly used for cracking human and animal heads…

Some primitive people still use these types of hafted hammerstones and stone anvils today. This is a kautaq, an Inuit hammer used to crush the bones which is made of an oblong stone mounted on a short slightly curved handle.

Hammerstone (hammerhead) design eventually, during neolithic, changed to resemble today’s hammers:

Since then hammer design barely changed. All that changed was the material from which the hammer head was made. With the invention of metallurgy, hammer heads started to be made from first arsenic copper, then bronze and eventually iron and steel.

These are hammers which were used by the Urnfield Culture metalworkers during the late bronze age.

Finally people settled on the lower type, and since then hammers have been looking pretty much like this:

During all this time, while hammers were evolving into first hafted stone head tools and then hafted metal head tools, anvils still stayed just flat slabs of stone. Anything that needed to be cracked open, smashed, pulverized, chipped, ground could still be effectively done on a flat slab of stone.

Even the emergence of metallurgy didn’t change the situation.

The first metal workers used pure native metals such as gold, silver, copper and perhaps some small amounts of iron. These were worked with bone and stone tools, stone hammers and stone anvils. These stone anvils were often natural but may have been worked stones as well.

At the beginning of the metal smelting age stone anvils would have continued to be used until the metal was affordable. The oldest known bronze age anvil was discovered at Pyrgos (also Myrtos-Pyrgos), an archaeological site of the Minoan civilization near Myrtos in the municipality of Ierapetra on the south coast of Crete. The settlement was inhabited around 2500 BC. In the east part of the settlement a copper (bronze) smith workshop was found. The workshop had a mud oven-forge, built from large slabs of calcarenite, and two stone anvils made of andesite.

This is one of the two (30kg) stone anvils, which could be considered the prototype of modern metalwork anvils. The anvil has a cutting on its “table” to shape blades.

This is a depiction of a bronze metalworker from the fifth dynasty tomb from Giza, Egypt dated to the second half of the 3rd millennium BC. We can see a metalworker hammering a bronze plate using a hammerstone and stone anvil mounted on a wooden block.

Bronze During the Bronze Age forging (a process involving the shaping of metal using localized compressive forces made by blows delivered with a hammer) was largely drawing of edges and decoration of cast items. Small stone anvils were originally used.

This is an early Bronze Age anvil stone found in Ribble Valley, Lancashire . It is incredibly heavy for its size (probably hematite) and shows evidence of continual impacts that appear deliberately placed. It is as likely that the anvil was used in the production of gold items, as well as coper alloy objects. The length is 72mm, width 60mm, thickness 45mm. Dates to between 2100 and 1500 BC.

These are stone anvils and hammers found in context with gold in bronze age Bell Beaker graves in Lunteren, Netherlands which were dated to the perdiod 2200 – 2020 BC. The person buried in the grave with the stone anvils was probably a gold worker, making gold spirals, hair clips etc.

First metal bronze anvils were basically imitations of the above simple cube stone anvils with the addition of the sharp pointy tong which can be stuck into a stump (log).

They were used like this:

Later on small bronze L shape anvils appeared like these ones described by Margaret Ehrenbery in her article “The Anvils of Bronze Age Europe” in The Antiquaries Journal. In her article she describes 37 small bronze anvils that are located in museums in Western Europe and the British Isles. Most have been dated from about 1200 to 700 BC because of the material with them. They are not just little blocks with a flat side, but some of them have horns, punching holes, swages of various shapes in them and a stake for mounting them. Although they are relatively small, they contain about every complexity or feature that has been used on smiths anvils to date.

At the beginning of the iron age in the West the anvil had to develope all over again. The reason for this is that gold, copper, bronze are produced in a fundamentally different way from iron.

Copper and bronze were refined in crucibles, and then poured into stone or clay moulds. Bronze was only finished or decorated on the Bronze Age bronze anvils where most work was done cold. This is why anvils made for bronze working were small and made for precision work.

Iron, on the other hand, was forged by being beaten on an anvil and most work was done hot. This is why anvils made for iron working can be divided into two groups: smaller anvils made for precision work with cold and worm iron and larger anvils made for  heavy pounding of hot iron.

This difference between the bronze and iron metalwork is even mention in the Bible: “The ironsmith is naturally called ‘he who strikes the anvil’, while the bronze-worker, who had to trim rough castings by hammering, is called ‘he who smooths with the hammer’ (Is. 41:7)”

The problem was that while bronze anvils could be cast using moulds, iron anvils had to be forged. That is quite a procedure which requires a lot of skill and a lot a iron. And this is why originally iron smiths returned to stone anvils. Stone anvils ended up being used used again for two reasons:

1. the iron could not be worked on the lower melting temperature bronze anvils.
2. the small bronze anvils were not strong enough to withstand the force used in iron work.

Soon a new type of forged iron anvils developed like this stump anvil seen here in a working iron age forge.

Eventually anvils assumed the shape that we today associate with anvils, like this one. It is similar in shape to bronze age L shaped anvil but much simpler and heavier.

However stone anvils continued to be used for iron work in Europe until late medieval time. This is a stone in Powys area of Wales, known locally as the Blacksmith’s Anvil. The stone marks a junction on the path to Grwyne Fawr Reservoir, Capel y ffin and Bal Mawr.

The above stone could actually have once been used as an anvil stone. This is an actual Viking anvil stone at Aðalból in East Iceland.

This picture is taken from a very good article by Patrick Ferneman, which explains how to use primitive tools to work iron. He uses stone anvil and hamerstone:

Stone anvils were used well into the 20th century by primitive peoples in various parts of the world such as Zulu in Africa. This picture shows Zulu spearkmaker beats a spear blade with a stone hammer on stone anvil.

Now one important thing about stone anvils. Anvil stone has to be exceptionally hard, like basalt or fine grained granite or andesite (like the stone from which the Minoan anvils were made), or some other type of bedrock. Again it all depends what you want to do and what kind of hammering force are you going to use. Alternatively you can make the anvil from metal-bearing rocks (ore). That will allow you to work metal of hardness up to the metal that can be extracted from the anvil stone. The best naturally occurring metal bearing rocks are meteorites, which are almost pure heat tempered iron. So it is not surprising that meteorites were used as anvils for metalwork.

Gold-rush traveller Asa Bement Clarke and boundary commissioner John Russell Bartlett both reported seeing a meteorite used as an anvil by a Tucson blacksmith called Ramon Pacheco around the mid 19th century. Bartlett provides this description of the meteorite he examined at Tucson and provides an accompanying sketch:
“…A remarkable meteorite, which is used for an anvil in the blacksmith’s shop. This mass resembles native iron, and weighs about six hundred pounds. Its greatest length is five feet. Its exterior is quite smooth, while the lower part which projects from the larger leg is very jagged and rough. It was found twenty miles distant towards Tubac, and about eight miles from the road, where we were told are many larger masses…” This is a replica of the Tuscon meteorite in it’s original position whn used as an anvil, currently displayed in the Flandrau – Science Center & Planetarium.

Hammerston and stone anvil have been used for millions of years by both humans and animals with pretty much no modification. The use of these tools have changed but the tools themselves remained pretty much the same. This is a remarkable example of “if it works don’t fix it” maxim.

Knowing all this, is it possible that some languages have preserved the fact that both hammers and anvils have essentially been just two stones for best part of human history? Well there are.

The word “hammer” comes from Old English hamor “hammer,” from Proto-Germanic *hamaraz (cognates: Old Saxon hamur, Middle Dutch, Dutch hamer, Old High German hamar, German Hammer). The Old Norse cognate hamarr meant “stone, crag” (it’s common in English place names), and suggests an original sense of the Germanic words as “tool with a stone head,” or just “hamerstone” which would describe the first hammers. Cognates: Proto Slavic dialectal:  kam, kamy, kamen, kamor  – stone, rock.

In Ancient Greek words for stone are λίθος (lithos) and πέτρα ‎(pétra). However the Ancien Greek word for anvil is  ἄκμων ‎(ákmōn). This word comes from the same root as the word hammer “(a)k(a)m” and originally just meant stone. Its cognates in European languages are:

Slavic: kam, kamy, kamen, kamor  – stone, rock
Germanic – hamaraz –  hammer, stone, rock
Latvian: akmens – stone
Lithuanian: akmuo – stone

This is very interesting I believe. If anyone knows any other language where the word for hammer and anvil also means stone, please let me know so that I can update my post.

What does all this have to do with the word baba you might be asking yourself?

This is a type of anvil used for peening the scythe. Peening is the process of working a metal’s surface to improve its material properties, usually by mechanical means, such as hammer blows. In case of scythe it is done to sharpen the blade. The traditional method of preparing the scythe edge uses a cross peen hammer and a small anvil. The peening process takes advantage of the plastic nature of metal. Hammering the cutting zone draws the metal out, thinning it for easier sharpening. This beating also work hardens the metal and enhances edge retention. This is exactly the kind of work done by bronze age metalworkers.

What is interesting is that in Serbia this peening anvil is called baba, babica, bapka,  bа̀pčić, bakva, bakvica (from baka, diminutive of baba). And the wooden block into which the peening anvil is stuck is called babac.
Why is this anvil call “baba” in Serbia? Is it because the word baba in Serbian once meant stone, rock? I believe so. I will talk about this in detail in my next post. 
Until then, stay happy and healthy.

Baba – the main column, pole that supports the house

In Serbia we have three very interesting proverbs:

“Ne stoji kuća na zemlji nego na ženi” – the house doesn’t stand on the ground but on the woman of the house

“Tri ćoška kuće stoje na ženi a jedan na mužu” – three corners of the house stand on the woman (wife) and one on the man (husband)

“Gde nije žene tu nije ni kuće” – where there is no woman, there is no house

All these proverbs mean that it is the woman that holds the household together and also that within the household, it is the woman that is charge.

This might sound strange considering that Serbians and other Balkan people lived in the past in extremely patriarchal, tribal societies. Women had to produce male children. A woman which was not able to produce a male child was considered infertile. When asked how many members the family had, people would reply with the number of able men under arms. The heroic cult was extremely strong and men were expected to die in battle rather than in bed. Mothers gave birth to sons knowing that they will probably be killed in battle very young. There is even a recorded expression: “Why did I give birth to my sons if not for them to die in battle”… In societies like these, life expectancy of males is very short. Which means that in most households the oldest member of the family was not an old man but an old woman. With men spending a lot of their time fighting wars, and with the eldest male usually being long dead, this left women to be in charge and in care of the house, property and children and basically the society as a whole.

By the way all this sounds just like the old Spartan society, and not surprisingly the role of women in the Spartan society was very similar to the role of women in the old traditional Serbian society.

Spartan women were encouraged to produce many children, preferably male, to increase Sparta’s military population. They took pride in giving birth to a brave warrior. Being the mother of a popular warrior was a high honor for a Spartan woman. This hero worship attitude is best illustrated by the famous parting cry of Spartan mothers to their sons: “Come back with your shield – or on it”. Spartan mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced while mothers whose sons survived hung their heads in shame.

At any given moment the Spartan polis would have consisted of predominantly women, given that half of the men were at war. When the men weren’t stationed they were preoccupied with training and remained separated from their homes leaving the women to completely dominate the household. This is why socially and politically women managed and led the community.

Aristotle was critical of the Spartan treatment of women on the grounds that in Sparta, men were ruled by their women, unlike in the rest of Greece.

Knowing all this, it should not surprise us that in Serbian the main column, pole that supports the house is called baba. Here are examples of early medieval Slavic houses with the “baba” column, pole marked in red. Also please note the calotte “baba” oven in the corner of the house. I already wrote about these ovens in my post “Baba – earthen bread oven“.

In some areas it is the main horizontal beam that holds the roof together that is called baba. This is probably the consequence of the development of house designs which removed the need for the main vertical support beam and which made the top most horizontal beam the most important part of the house construction. 

The word “baba” in Serbian means firstly an old woman, grandmother but it used to mean also a mother, a wife or any woman that has kids or has anything to do with kids like midwife. In Serbian tradition, even the birth demons which decide the faith of the mother and the child are also called baba.

So by naming the support columns which hold house together baba, the old Serbs symbolically acknowledged the pivotal role women played in Serbian society.

Baba – earthen bread oven

This is furuna, vuruna, vurnja, a traditional Serbian bread oven.  

These types of bread ovens have been continuously used in Serbia since early Neolithic times. Identical ovens were found in the houses of the Vinča culture.

That the bread baking was often associated with pregnancy can be seen from the English phrase “To have a bun in the oven” which means “to be pregnant”.  
In Serbian tradition this similarity did not go unnoticed either, because another name for these ancient bread ovens is “baba”. 
The word baba in Serbian means firstly an old woman, grandmother but it used to mean also a mother, a wife or any woman that has kids or has anything to do with kids like midwife. In Serbian tradition, even the birth demons which decide the faith of the mother and the child are also called baba. 
It is baba (married woman, mother) that carries the baby in her belly (the bread oven). Baby (bread) needs to spend just right amount of time in the belly (oven) of the baba (mother, oven) in order to grow and develop properly. It is baba (mother in law, or any other older woman who has previous experience with birth, later professional midwife, bread making) that deliver the baby (bread). 

Open sesame

One Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: كِتَاب أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة‎ kitāb ʾalf layla wa-layla) is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.

Most scholars agreed that the Nights was a composite work and that the earliest tales in it came from India and Persia. At some time, probably in the early 8th century, these tales were translated into Arabic under the title Alf Layla, or ‘The Thousand Nights’. This collection then formed the basis of The Thousand and One Nights. The original core of stories was quite small. Then, in Iraq in the 9th or 10th century, this original core had Arab stories added to it – among them some tales about the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Also, perhaps from the 10th century onwards, previously independent sagas and story cycles were added to the compilation. Then, from the 13th century onwards, a further layer of stories was added in Syria and Egypt, many of these showing a preoccupation with sex, magic or low life. In the early modern period yet more stories were added to the Egyptian collections so as to swell the bulk of the text sufficiently to bring its length up to the full 1,001 nights of storytelling promised by the book’s title.”

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (علي بابا والأربعون لصا) is a story which is included in many versions of the One Thousand and One Nights. In the story, Ali Baba is a poor woodcutter who discovers the secret of a thieves’ den, which can be opened and entered with the phrase “Open Sesame”. The thieves learn this and try to kill Ali Baba, but Ali Baba’s faithful slave-girl foils their plots. Ali Baba gives his son to her in marriage and keeps the secret of the treasure.

The tale was added to the story collection One Thousand and One Nights by one of its European translators, Antoine Galland, who called his volumes Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704–1717). Galland was an 18th-century French Orientalist who may have heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story-teller from Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. In any case, the first known text of the story is Galland’s French version. Richard F. Burton included it in the supplemental volumes (rather than the main collection of stories) of his translation (published as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night) and thought its origins were Greek Cypriot.

Open Sesame” (Arabic: افتح يا سمسم‎ iftaḥ yā simsim) is a magical phrase in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in One Thousand and One Nights. The phrase first appears in writing in Antoine Galland’s “Les Mille et une nuits” (1704–1717) as “Sésame, ouvre-toi” meaning “Sesame open yourself”. The phrase has been variously translated from the French into English as “Sesame, Open”, “Open, Sesame” and “Open, O Simsim”.

There are many theories about the origin of the phrase. Indeed, it is not certain what the word sesame or simsim actually means. 

Some older theories include:

1. Sesame is a reduplication of the Hebrew šem ‘name’ i.e. God or a kabbalistic word representing the Talmudic šem-šamáįm (“shem-shamayim”), ‘name of heaven’.
2. Sesame is connected to Babylonian magic practices which used sesame oil.

I believe that there is another possible etymology for this word or phrase, one that fits perfectly the actual use of the word in the story about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However this etymology would open quite a few questions about the origin of the “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” story. 

In the story, Ali Baba is at work collecting and cutting firewood in the forest, and he happens to overhear a group of 40 thieves visiting their treasure store. The treasure is in a cave, the mouth of which is sealed by magic. It opens on the words “open sesame” and seals itself on the words “close sesame”. 

This is very interesting. The cave opens by itself when it is commanded “open sesame” and it closes by itself when it is commanded “close sesame”. 

In Serbian if you wanted to command the cave to open “by yourself” you would say “otvori se sam” and if you wanted to command the cave to close “by yourself” you would say “zatvori se sam”…

In Serbian the phrase “se sam” means “by yourself”…

In Serbian the word “sam” means alone, by yourself, without anyone’s help. My son when he was small used to shout “sam! sam!” when he wanted to do something by himself without the help of adults. Is this where “simsim” comes from? Is “simsim” just bastardisation of “sam! sam!” which happened after the meaning of the original phrase was forgotten?

If we look at the etymology of the Serbian word “sam” we see that the word “sam” meaning alone, by oneself is a Slavic wide word. The “so called” cognates include. You will se why I say “so called” from the actual list of “cognates”:

Germanic: *samaz – same, equal but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Ancient Greek: ὁμός ‎(homós) – same, common, joint but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Sanskrit: सम ‎(sama) – same, even, equal, homogeneous but not alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Avestan: ‎(ham) – ?
Kurmanji: hev – o have, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Sorani: haw – ?
Zazaki: hem – and, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all
Old Persian: ‎(hama) – ?
Middle Persian: (ham) – ?
New Persian: هم ‎(ham) – also, too, similarly, nothing to do with alone, by oneself. Probably not a cognate at all

From here you can see that the phrase “se sam” meaning “by yourself” and “sam! sam!” meaning “by yourself, alone” could only have come from Slavic languages. 

I was just told that another possible Serbian etymology is “otvori se za me” meaning “open yourself for me”… 

As we can see, this etymology gives the meaning to the words (phrases) “sesame”, “simsim” which  perfectly match the use of the words (phrases) in the actual story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. But if this is the real etymology, and it is the only normal sounding etymology so far, how did this Serbian (Slavic) expression end up in Arabian folk tale? As I already said, most scholars agreed that the “One Thousand and One Nights” are a composite work and that the earliest tales in it came from India and Persia. But is it possible that some of these stories came from Slavic countries, or from territories in Asia Minor inhabited by Slavic people who were settled there during Byzantine times? As I said already, It is believed that Galland, the 18th-century French Orientalist, who was the first to record the “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” story, may have heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story-teller from Aleppo, in modern-day Syria. And Syria was at the time of the Slavic settlement in Asia minor the border area between the Byzantine empire and the Umayyad Caliphate. And the Slavs were specifically settles in the Asia Minor to protect the Byzantine borders against the Muslims.  

Asia Minor Slavs refers to the historical South Slav communities relocated to Anatolia by the Byzantine Empire, from the Balkans. After Maurice’s Balkan campaigns (582-602), and subsequent subduing of Slavs in the Balkans during the 7th and 8th centuries, large communities were forcefully relocated to Asia Minor as military, fighting the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 658 and 688/9 the Byzantines invited groups of Slavic settlers to Bithynia.

The best known Slavic settlement there was the city of Gordoservon (Serbian: Srbograd, Grad Srba, Гордосервон, Greek: Γορδόσερβα) is mentioned, whose name is derived from the Serbs resettled in Asia Minor (in ca 649 or 667) by Byzantine Emperor Constans II (641–668), who came from the areas “around river Vardar”. Isidor, the Bishop of Gordoservon is mentioned in 680/681, and the fact that this town was an episcopal seat gives ground to the thesis that it had a large Serbian population. Around the year 1200 this city is mentioned as ‘Servochoria’ (Serbian habitation).

Constantine III settled captured Slavs in Asia Minor, and 5,000 of these joined Abdulreman ibn Khalid in 664-665.

Justinian II (685-695) also settled in Asia Minor as many as 30,000 Slavs from Thrace, in an attempt to boost military strength. Most of them however, with their leader Neboulos, deserted to the Arabs at the Battle of Sebastopolis in 692.

Military campaigns in northern Greece in 758 under Constantine V (r. 741–775) prompted a relocation of Slavs under Bulgar aggression, again in 783. The Bulgar expansion caused massive Slav migrations, and in 762, more than 200,000 people fled to Byzantine territory and were relocated to Asia Minor.

The most prominent among the Asia Minor Slavs was Thomas the Slav. Thomas the Slav (c. 760 – October 823 AD) was a 9th-century Byzantine military commander, most notable for leading a wide-scale revolt in 821–23 against Emperor Michael II the Amorian (ruled 820–29).

An army officer of Slavic origin from the Pontus region (now north-eastern Turkey), Thomas rose to prominence, along with the future emperors Michael II and Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820), under the protection of general Bardanes Tourkos. After Bardanes’s failed rebellion in 803, Thomas fell into obscurity until Leo V’s rise to the throne, when Thomas was raised to a senior military command in central Asia Minor. After the murder of Leo and usurpation of the throne by Michael the Amorian, Thomas revolted, claiming the throne for himself. Thomas quickly secured support from most of the themes (provinces) and troops in Asia Minor, defeated Michael’s initial counter-attack and concluded an alliance with the Abbasid Caliphate. After winning over the maritime themes and their ships as well, he crossed with his army to Europe and laid siege to Constantinople. The imperial capital withstood Thomas’s attacks by land and sea, while Michael II called for help from the Bulgarian ruler Omurtag. Omurtag attacked Thomas’s army, but although repelled, the Bulgarians inflicted heavy casualties on Thomas’s men, who broke and fled when Michael took to the field a few months later. Thomas and his supporters sought refuge in Arcadiopolis, where he was soon blockaded by Michael’s troops. In the end, Thomas’s supporters surrendered him in exchange for a pardon, and he was executed.

Thomas’s rebellion was one of the largest in the Byzantine Empire’s history

The Slavs of the Opsician Theme (Sklabesianoi) are still attested as a separate group in the 10th century, serving as marines in the Byzantine navy. 

So did these Asia Minor Slavs use phrases “otvori se sam” (open yourself) and “otvori se! sam! sam!” (open yourself! by yourself! by yourself!) or “otvori se za me” (open yourself for me) phrases in their retelling of the story about the magic cave which can open and close itself by itself? And is this how we ended up with “open sesame”, “open simsim”?

The best bits

Offal, also called variety meats or organ meats, refers to the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. The word does not refer to a particular list of edible organs, which varies by culture and region, but includes most internal organs excluding muscle and bone.

The word shares its etymology with several Germanic words: Frisian ôffal, German Abfall (offall in some Western German dialects), afval in Dutch and Afrikaans, avfall in Norwegian and Swedish, and affald in Danish. These Germanic words all mean “garbage”, or —literally— “off-fall”, referring to that which has fallen off during butchering. However, these words are not often used to refer to food with the exception of Afrikaans in the agglutination afvalvleis (lit. “off-fall-meat”) which does indeed mean offal. For instance, the German word for offal is Innereien meaning innards. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word entered Middle English from Middle Dutch in the form afval, derived from af (off) and vallen (fall).

When I was a kid in Serbia, when an animal was slaughtered, there was really no part which was not eaten.

Chicken was slaughtered maybe once every week and the whole animal except for the head and the intestines was eaten including all the internal organs. If the chicken was slaughtered for a feast, then the whole chicken was roasted, but normally it was cut into pieces which were roasted of fried or used in stews. Neck, feet, wings and internal organs were boiled for a stock (soup). Sometimes if you were lucky, you could find a boiled yet unlaid egg in your soup plate. Boiled bones were broken and the bone marrow was sucked out…

Pigs were only slaughtered once a year at the beginning of the winter. Lambs and sheep were only slaughtered for St Georges day. Calves and bulls were only slaughtered for really special occasions and communal feasts. Milk cows were basically never slaughtered unless they got too old.

Anyway if any of these large animals was slaughtered for a feast, then it was cleaned off the innards and roasted on spit whole. Otherwise, large cuts of meet (hams, shoulders, back, neck) were mostly dried and smoked. Smaller fatty cuts were cut into small bits, or minced and stuffed into sausages and salamis which were also dried and smoked. Belly fat in pigs was also dried and smoked and turned into speck and pancheta. This was the meat that was left for the winter. Internal organs, including intestines were the parts of the animal eaten first as they can’t keep, and they were eaten fried, grilled or stewed. Heads were boiled and the meat including ears, snout, tong and skin was stripped off the bone. All of these bits were then added back to the water in which the head was boiled, and the whole lot was turned into a jelly using natural gelatin from the scull. The brains were a delicacy and were eaten boiled, fried or roasted. Scrotum and testicles were also eaten grilled or fried. Trotters (feet) were eaten stewed. Fat was also melted and used in cooking as geese. Blood was used for making blood sausages. Bone marrow was also eaten out of the cooked bones.

So basically nothing was wasted. 

When I was a kid, one of my duties during the lamb slaughter was to clean small intestine. You were given a thin stick and intestines in a bucket of water. You had to turn them inside out by using the stick and wash the insides.

The clean intestines were then cooked (grilled, boiled or stewed) and eaten. I remember once my grandmother passed by and said: “Don’t wash it too well. Its the stuff that is inside the intestines, that is the best bit. It gives the intestines the good taste…”

I always thought that this was a very strange thing to say indeed. Eating the content of the intestines? Phew. I, like probably most people reading this article, regard the content of the stomach and the small intestine as horrible, dirty, smelly future poo. In doing so we are completely forgetting that the content of the stomach and the small intestine is actually the mix of food that was eaten and the enzymes secreted by the digestive tract and the bacteria living in it. The content of the stomach and the small intestine is the true “elixir of life”. And it even has a name: chyme, pronounced “kaɪm”. It comes from Greek χυμός pronounced “khymos”,  meaning juice.

And it seems that our ancestors didn’t let the chyme go to waste either.

Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated.

But now anthropologists Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest in Quaternary Science Reviews that instead, Neandertals may have picked up some of these plants by eating the stomach (and small intestine) contents of their prey. That would explain the presence of plants with no obvious nutritional value to hominids.

It was not only the Neanderthals that ate chyme. Other (so called Modern) humans ate it too. We know this because the custom of eating chyme was preserved until today in some cultures.

I already said that, judging by my grandmother’s comment, it could have been once a custom in the Balkans.

The consumption of stomach contents is ascribed a ritual or spiritual value in several cultures. For the Kuria people from the Kenya – Tanzania border, eating the chyme is eating the life of the animal. It transfers to the taker the vital force of the slaughtered animal

The chyme is eaten because of its medicinal properties. The Damara people from Namibia consume the stomach contents (and dung, which may also preserve plant fragments) of ostrich and kori bustard in the treatment of various ailments, including dehydration, malaria, and burns. These birds are perceived to have medicinal power drawn from their size and eating habits.

Similarly, porcupine stomach is prized for its potency among  Khoisan of Southern Africa because of the animal’s diet of medicinal plants.

Lakota indians ate the guts of the buffalo because the buffalo guts were full of half-fermented, half-digested grass and herbs specifically because of their medicinal value.

Another potentially crucial reason for the consumption of herbivore stomach contents is that it is a rich source of carbohydrates. Reindeer stomach is the best source of carbohydrates (with the exception of berries, which are equally rich in carbohydrates, but more seasonal) in the Greenland Inuit diet.

Greenland Inuit also ate ringed seal pup stomach with its content as a delicasy. They compared this chyme to cream cheese, and today when they want to eat something similar they eat Philadelphia cheese. 

Now don’t think that it is only the “primitive” people who had such disgusting food habits. Chyme is the defining ingredient of pajata, a traditional Roman recipe.

Rigatoni con la Pajata (in Italian: Rigatoni con la Pagliata [riɡaˈtoːni kon la paʎˈʎaːta]) is a classic dish of the Roman Cuisine. The dish can be found in some traditional trattorias in Rome. Pajata is the term for the intestines of an “un-weaned” calf, i.e., only fed on its mother’s milk. The intestines are cleaned and skinned, but the chyme is left inside. Then the intestine is cut in pieces 20 – 25 cm long, which are bound together with white thread, forming rings. When cooked, the combination of heat and the enzyme rennet in the intestines coagulates the chyme and creates a sort of thick, creamy, cheese-like sauce. These rings can be served simply seasoned and grilled (pajata arrosto) or in the traditional Roman dish in which pajata is stewed in a typical tomato sauce and served with rigatoni.

Now this is very very interesting. Why? Because how people got the idea to make cheese from milk is still a mystery, and maybe the answer to this mystery is chyme.

There is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheese-making originated. The earliest secure evidence of cheese making dates back to 5,500 BCE in Kujawy, Poland. Milk extracts have been identified on 34 perforated pottery vessels or “cheese-strainers”, which date back 7,500 years that have been excavated in Poland. It is unambiguous evidence for cheese-making in northern Europe during Neolithic times, scientists believe, and the findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature. Dairying seemingly existed around 4,000 BCE in the grasslands of the Sahara.

But how did people discover or invent cheese? If we want to answer that question, we first need to know what cheese is and how it is made from milk.

Cheese is a food derived from milk that is produced by coagulation (curdling) of the milk protein casein. It comprises proteins and fat from milk, usually the milk of cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep. During production, the milk is usually acidified, and adding the enzyme rennet causes coagulation. The solids are separated and pressed into final form. Some cheeses have molds on the rind or throughout.

So to get the milk to turn to cheese we need rennet. What is rennet?

Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals. Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion, principally through microbial actions. The process typically requires the fermented plant food (known as cud) to be regurgitated and chewed again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”. There are roughly 150 species of ruminants which include both domestic and wild species. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, antelope, and some macropods.

So ruminant mammals produce rennet in their stomachs. But rennet is not produced by the ruminant mammals throughout their lives. It is only produced by suckling young animals before they start eating grass. Chymosin, the key component of rennet, is a protease enzyme that curdles the casein in milk. In this way it helps the young mammals digest their mothers’ milk. 

This is the interesting bit. This means that cheese exists in nature and didn’t need to be “invented”. Cheese is the chyme found in stomachs and small intestine of the suckling young of the ruminant mammals. Now knowing that our hunter gatherer ancestors ate chyme of killed animals, they must have very quickly realized that chyme from different animals tastes different and some taste way better than others. And being good hunter gatherers who know the habits of their pray, they probably soon realized that the chyme of baby sheep, goats, cows is the milk that they sucked, and which was somehow, magically turned into this tasty goo inside their stomachs and small intestines? All that was left to do then was to try to reproduce what naturally happens in the stomachs of the suckling young ruminant mammals. If this milk chyme was a delicacy, a sought after delicacy, which was only available during the suckling season, then there was a big incentive for people to try to make more of it and at the time when there are no suckling young ruminant mammals that can be killed for their chyme. So why not get the stomach out of a lamb, tie it on one end, pour milk into it, tie it on the other end, leave it and see what happens…and bingo…We have milk chyme or as we like to call it today milk curds. 

The currently accepted theory that tries to explain the invention of cheese is this. Since animal skins and inflated internal organs have provided storage vessels since ancient times for a range of foodstuffs, it is probable that the process of cheese making was discovered accidentally by storing milk in a container made from the stomach of a ruminant, resulting in the milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet remaining in the stomach. 

But maybe these storage vessels made from stomachs of ruminant mammals are the result of the original attempts to make chyme. 

You can make water bottles (aka waterskin) from the stomachs of larger animals. Thoroughly flush the stomach out with water, then tie off the bottom leaving the top open. 

Boil a pot of water.  Take the water off the heat and place the stomach in it.  Allow it to sit for 2 hours. 
Empty the water, boil another batch of water, and place the stomach in it again to soak for 2 hours.  Continue this until the water is clear after soaking.
Turn the stomach inside out and scrape away the lining with a dull knife while holding the stomach under warm water.  When the water becomes cloudy, replace it with fresh warm water.  Continue until the inner lining of the stomach is clean.  Be careful to not puncture the stomach.
Boil a pot of water.  Take the water off the heat and place the stomach in it.  Soak for 30 minutes.
Sew one end of the stomach to close it.  Roll the end over the seam and sew it again.

You can see that the above process will remove the stomach lining which contains all the rennet and it would be hard for the container made in such way to turn milk into cheese.  It is of course possible that badly cleaned stomach would have enough rennet left to indeed turn milk into cheese. 

I believe that the bags made from cleaned but not scraped or boiled baby animal stomachs were deliberately used to produce milk chyme, which we today call cheese. Like this dry sheep stomach bag, that is used for cheese fermenting process on a farm in Darguziai village in Lithuania. One stomach bag can be used for cheese production for the whole year.

Now we actually have the proof that this is exactly how the original cheese was made. The proof is the ancient Sardinian cheese called ‘Cazu de Crabittu’  (literally ‘rennet of baby goat’) . It is produced in Sardinia and dates back probably to Neolithic times. It is made directly in the fourth and final stomach, or abomasum, of a suckling goat, because it contains many enzymes responsible for the digestion – or in this case the coagulation – of milk.

Traditionally, just before killing a goat kid, the shepherd leaves it to suckle its mother milk. He then separates the abomasum from the other parts of the intestines, which are used for other purposes.

The abomasum is emptied, and the milk is filtered with a simple net then returned to the stomach. The stomach is rubbed on the outside with salt and hung to dry (in a cellar, for example) for some months. After the maturation, we slice open the stomach and spread small amounts of the cheese onto ‘pane carasau’, a traditional flat bread which is very thin. In pastoralist circles, the cheese is even referred to as ‘Sardinian viagra’, or ‘faede arrettae’ in Sardo. The taste of the cheese is different every time, because the milk is raw and because the goats live freely eating many wild plant species. The result is a super tasty and strong creamy cheese with different nuances, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter all combined with a persistent wild animal aroma. When you taste ‘Su Cazu de Crabittu’ you will never forget the taste.

Now making cheese in lamb stomachs is great, but look at the size of it. If you want to make large amounts of cheese you really need to be able to use bigger containers. To do so rennet needed to be obtained from baby animal stomachs. 

Production of natural rennet

Rennet is extracted from the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber (the abomasum) of young, unweaned ruminant mammals. If rennet is extracted from older animals (grass-fed or grain-fed), the rennet contains less or no chymosin, but a high level of pepsin and can only be used for special types of milk and cheeses. As each ruminant produces a special kind of rennet to digest the milk of its own species, milk-specific rennets are available, such as kid goat rennet for goat’s milk and lamb rennet for sheep’s milk.

Traditional method

Dried and cleaned stomachs of young unweaned ruminant mammals are sliced into small pieces and then put into salt water or whey, together with some vinegar or wine to lower the pH of the solution. After some time (overnight or several days), the solution is filtered. The crude rennet that remains in the filtered solution can then be used to coagulate milk. About 1 g of this solution can normally coagulate 2 to 4 L of milk.

Once you have rennet you can use it to curdle milk in containers which were not made from stomachs, like earthen pots, or wooden barrels or sheep skins. Cheese is still made in sheep skin bags in Montenegro:

So once you had the whole rennet thing figured out, the only other thing really that needed to be invented was how to turn milk chyme, milk curd, into hard cheese which can be preserved, transported and stored. To do that you need to add salt to the curds, press them and dry them. Any idea how this happened?

But the fact that cheese occurs naturally as the chyme from the stomachs and small intestine of the young unweaned ruminant mammals opens another interesting possibility. Our hunter gatherer ancestors could have eaten cheese millenniums before the first of these ruminant mammals were domesticated. Hunters which lived off the large herds of migrating ruminant mammals would have eaten whole animals including stomach content and stomach itself. This means that they would have been ingesting not only milk solids found in stomachs of baby animals, but also stomach cells and bacteria and enzymes and all the other chemicals linked with milk digestion. Is it possible that it is the long term ingestion of this combination of things rather than just milk, that eventually resulted in the change of human stomachs and small intestines and allowed these hunters to eventually start digesting milk itself?  

Anyway I think that this is an interesting story. What do you think?