Audio Description #2 – Millstones

— Audio Transcript–

Title: A pair of millstones used at Thomas West’s Barcom Glen watermill, Paddington, NSW
Maker: Unknown
Date: In operation at West’s Mill circa 1810-1830. Donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1906.
Materials: Vesicular basalt with dressed (carved) faces

This pair of early colonial basalt millstones, though not physically present in the gallery, function as a conceptual locus around which the rest of the exhibition centrifugally spins.

The two large millstones take the form of wide, squat cylinders. Each stone is approximately 30cm high x 125cm in diameter, and each weighs close to a tonne.

At the centre of each millstone, a square-shaped hollow approximately 15cm wide and referred to as an “eye”, has been cut through the rock, as if the disks had been cored like an apple.

The two stones operated as a set, with one mounted above the other on a horizontal axis. The lower stone, referred to as the bedstone, remained stationary, while the runner stone, suspended above, would have rotated.

The basalt from which the millstones have been hewn is a deep blue-grey, though the stones’ surfaces are mottled from centuries of wear. While the two stones are visually similar, a number of details differentiate them from one another. The outer edges of the bedstone remain rough and uneven, whereas the runner stone’s edge has a smooth finish. The runner stone also has a series of four additional notches cut around its central hollow. Known as a “Spanish Cross”, this cross-shaped depression enabled it to be suspended above the bedstone on a spindle.

The stones are riddled with small holes which appear as pock-marks across their surfaces. These holes, or vesicles, were formed by bubbles of gas trapped in the molten rock as it solidified: a testament to its liquid origins.

These millstones, currently held in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum, once laboured at the first water-powered flour mill in Sydney. Owned and operated by pardoned convict Thomas West, the mill was erected in 1812 on a grant of land named Barcom Glen, imposed on Gadigal Country, in what is now known as Paddington.

Flour mills were a prominent feature of the early colony, as newly arrived settlers attempted to transpose modes of British industry onto the landscape, with varying degrees of success. Unreliable rainfall, coupled with competition from windmills and the arrival of steam-powered technology, soon left West’s enterprise floundering, and by 1830 his mill had come to a grinding halt. The millstones lingered as ruins on the family property until eventually being accessioned into the Powerhouse Museum collection in 1906, presented by West’s descendants. Their sedentism continued for much of the last century, resting on a rack high in the dexion shelving of the Museum’s storage warehouse. Here they sit still, each balanced on foam-covered chocks supported by metal pallets.

The origin of the millstones remains a matter of conjecture. Basalt has been used for millennia by Australia’s First Peoples, the intricate aquaculture systems contained within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape being a salient example of millennia-old Gunditjmara engineering. However, the material was not quarried on an industrial scale by European settlers so early after invasion, suggesting that these millstones were imported from elsewhere.

The circular grinding faces of both stones are divided into eleven equally-sized segments, each shaped like a slice of pie, which radiate out from the central cavity. These segments are themselves composed of a series of shallow, diagonal lines known as furrows that have been chiseled into the stone in a repeating pattern.

When milling grain, the runner stone and bedstone remained separated by a paper-thin gap at all times. As the runner rotated, the carved furrows of the millstones’ surfaces would criss-cross over one another in a scissoring action, slicing the grain into smaller and smaller pieces. Centrifugal force would channel the ground flour outward through these furrows, from the stone’s eye toward its edges for collection.

This passage of grain, driven by flows from centre to periphery, mirrors the many complex layers of movement embodied in the stones themselves: their own transition from liquid lava to solid rock; their displacement and transportation in service of an expanding and ongoing colonial project; and the violent redistribution of landscapes and of peoples that such an extractive ideology propelled.

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