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Dark Age Water Mills at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Water mills fascinate me. My first solo excavation was of a 17th-century mill in England, a large operation quite different from those we know of from the Middle Ages. Medieval mills were compact and made efficient use of canalized streams of water rather than powerful rivers.

Now my fascination with mills has got me into hot water. A rescue excavation ten years ago at the site of my old excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno in Molise – made long after my time – found remarkable timber sub-structures reaching out from the 8th- to 9th century monastery into the river Volturno. The excavator published the wooden beams as remains of wharfs. I disagreed because boating along this river was almost always impossible.

Rescue excavations in the Volturno 2007. Note the blocks and timbers

Instead I have hypothesized that the so-called wharfs were the strong foundation casements for a line of small mills to feed San Vincenzo’s large population of monks and servants (see my essay –‘In small things forgotten’, Archeologia Medievale XLII (2016), 419-22). What particularly puzzled me were the line of three huge stone blocks beyond the timber sub-structures in the middle of the river. These looked like supports but for what?

Now I have one possible answer. It comes from a small reconstructed mill at Bad Moos in the Fiscalina valley in the Alto Adige. This reconstruction is intended to be a nostalgic monument to the many mills here in early modern times. Its footprint is small, only 2.3 m square but the channelled water drives an overshot wheel about 1.5 m. in diameter. The key component of the mill is its axle driving the millstones. Thick and strong, this wooden beam is anchored beyond the wheel on a solid, upright block.

Bad Moos mill

Look closely and the reconstructed block at Bad Moos resembles those blocks in the river at San Vincenzo. Close to Bad Moos is another mill with another such block, in this case a larger mill brought to the Rainer Family Hotel from southern Austria and over a century old.

The Rainer Family Hotel mill - note the axle support

Did Dark Age San Vincenzo place huge store in its capacity to mill grain from its estates? Its granary, which I excavated (and published) some years ago, was a large building with capacity for 180 tons of grain (sufficient to feed a community numbering roughly 150 persons, monks, etc.). Do these enigmatic blocks in the Volturno and these Alto Adige modern mill reconstructions show how important bread milling was for these Molisani monks?

The debate will surely continue….

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