UNESCO – English

Miller’s craft on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list

On December 5, 2017, there was a party for the Dutch millers. The ancient craft of milling has been recognized by UNESCO as Cultural Intangible Heritage. A recognition for an old craft with a bright future.

“Intangible heritage is ‘living heritage’. It includes social customs, performances, rituals, traditions, expressions, special knowledge or skills that communities and groups (and sometimes even individuals) recognize as a form of cultural heritage. A special feature is that it is transmitted from generation to generation and is important for a common identity.”

Oliemolens.nl - UNESCO

Intangible Heritage

On December 6, 2023, the Olieslaan craft was registered in the Intangible Heritage of the Netherlands inventory. The millers and oil butchers are responsible for transferring the heritage. Volunteer millers play an important role in this, which means that the craft of oil milling has been classified as an intangible heritage. The craft of oil-mining is that intangible heritage.

Olieslaan - Immaterieel Erfgoed Nederland

A piece of history

About 5,000 years ago, humans switched from hunting/gathering to agriculture. The grain was (usually) ground by hardworking women, for example by this Egyptian woman with a grinding stone.

Oliemolens.nl - Egypte - UNESCO

Limestone statuette from a tomb in Egypt of the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, 2465-2323 BC.

Around 6,000 BC, grain grains were rubbed finely between two stones. One stone was hollowed out, another stone was placed on top and the grains were crushed into powder. Derived from this is the hand mill that originated at the beginning of our era. The hand mill (queerne) or rotating mill consisted of two stones, round in shape. Here the grain was crushed between a fixed (lower stone) and a rotating (upper) millstone of approximately 30 cm in diameter. These stones are also called the girder and the bishop. The Roman invention of this dates back to the 1st century BC.

The development of wind and water mills already gave rise to a new profession in Roman times: that of mulder or miller. Mills powered by slaves or animals. When a horse or donkey was used, we started to speak of horse mills. The water mill came into operation in the Roman Empire and the work immediately became much easier.

The Romans contributed to the spread of the Roman Empire, which had its northern border, the Limes, up to the Rhine. It took several years before the water grain mills managed to gain a place next to the mills operated by slaves or animals. The slower spread of water wheel mills must be largely attributed to the fact that hand mills and horse mills could be placed anywhere, while – as far as water mills were concerned – they were always dependent on the presence of running water. In England, fragments of undershot wheels and complete millstones from three water mills from the 3rd century, possibly from the end of the 2nd century, have been discovered near Hadrian’s rampart, built by the Romans.

Water- wind- and horse mills

The development of wind and water mills already gave rise to a new profession in Roman times: that of mulder or miller. Mills powered by slaves or animals. When a horse or donkey was used, we started to speak of horse mills. The water mill came into operation in Rome and the work immediately became a lot easier.

Oliemolens.nl - Water - Wind en Rosmolens - UNESCO

The Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – 20 AD) first mentions a water mill for grinding grain, which Roman soldiers are said to have seen in the palace of King Mithridates of Pontus (Anatolia, now Turkey). Roman engineers improved the scoop board, the cogwheel and the wheel that had to transmit the power to the axle of the millstone and thus the performance.

Oliemolens.nl - Watermolencomplex Barbegal - UNESCO - Schets
Oliemolens.nl - Watermolencomplex Barbegal - UNESCO - tekening

Barbegal water mill complex

The Roman Empire needed a lot of grain to supply food for legionaries and cities such as Rome and Arlas. Near Arlas in France, archaeologists recently found the Roman ‘industrial’ water mill complex Barbegal, with 16 overshot wheels driving as many grinding stones. The flour mill made larger scale production possible with less human effort.

It was already known that the Romans were masters in what  we now call water management.

In February 2024, an article was published with beautiful illustrations about new discoveries about the complex at Barbegal, which you can read HERE.

Aqueducts with a gradient of 30 – 40 cm per kilometer,  bathhouses and lead pipes for drinking water. It is claimed that the collapse of the Roman Empire was caused by brain softening of the senators, who suffered lead poisoning.

After the water-powered grain mill was introduced, several techniques were developed over the centuries, both in terms of drive and products to be processed. This is how water mills were developed that we now know as tidal mills, ship mills, overshot and undershot mills. Water-powered mills were developed for all kinds of products, such as the saw mill, paper mill and oil mill; the same drive system for completely different operations.