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CARLO Gamberini has 250 stones in his garden. Not just any stones – beautifully sculptured stones used by women over the past 150 years for grinding maize.

Gamberini is a collector of grinding stones, and 100 from his precious collection are on exhibition at the Circa gallery in Rosebank, in an exhibition entitled “Between rock: grinding stones from southern Africa”.

They have been collected from villages in Mpumalanga, where they are no longer used by the villagers, says Gamberini. He has collected the stones over the past 10 years. “It is not about the stones, it is about meeting people and hearing their stories,” he adds.

They make a fascinating display on the gallery floor; all shapes and sizes, each one has been hollowed out over hours and hours of women’s hard labour. The flatter bottom stone that is stationary is called a quern, while the grinding work is done with a hand stone. The quern starts as a flat stone, and with use is ground down to form a central hollow.

Sorghum to maize
Black Africans entered South Africa in about 200AD and although they were pastoralists, for centuries they cultivated sorghum which they ground in grinding stones. They switched to maize when the Portuguese brought it to southern Africa from the 15th century.

“By about AD 1650, many communities in the interior cultivated the new crop,” says Wits’ professor emeritus of archaeology, Tom Huffman. “Maize was popular because each plant produced two to three times more food than sorghum. Furthermore, because the husk protected the seed from birds, the same amount of labour could grow two to three times more maize plants.”

But these days villagers don’t grind their maize – they buy maize meal from their local shop, or take their seeds to be ground by a mechanical mill. The only time they use the stones is when they have a gathering for a celebration and they grind corn to make beer, says Gamberini.

Inevitably when he visits villages, he is struck by the poverty, he explains. And when he notices a grinding stone, he ascertains whether the villagers are willing to sell it. If he detects any reluctance, he doesn’t pursue the matter. “Some villages are so poor – there’s no food – that they need the money.”

If they are willing to sell, he offers anything between R300 and R800 for a stone. Very often he finds a broken stone. “When the grandmother was finished with it, she would break it. But it’s fun to find one in a whole state.”

Huffman says that different techniques were used to grind for different grains. The softer sorghum and millet seeds were ground in a long groove with a one-handed hand stone. The tough maize kernels were first pounded in a mortar, then moved to a quern and ground with a two-handed hand stone.

“The bottom quern starts as a flat stone that is pitted to catch the kernels. Once the surface is worn smooth, the woman pits the quern again, ultimately producing a deep basin,” he explains.

“Only in very rural areas do women still grind seeds in the old way. Throughout South Africa, grindstones such as these on display mark old agricultural villages.”

Artefacts older than 100 years are part of the country’s heritage, and are protected by law to ensure future research and education.

Gamberini owns a foundry in Pretoria North, and is a sixth-generation bronze caster. His father, Luigi Gamberini, a former Italian prisoner of war from Zonderwater and an employee at the Vignali Foundry, took over the business when his employer, Renzo Vignali, died in 1945, according to

It was responsible for sculptures at the Voortrekker Monument and Union Buildings in Pretoria. “The Vignali Foundry played an important role in the art history of South Africa – during the first 27 years of its existence (1931-1958) it was the only foundry in South Africa specialising in the casting of works of art.”

Because of his connection to work displayed at the Circa gallery, Gamberini was asked by owner Mark Read to display his grinding stones. The exhibition runs until 16 June. The gallery is open on Mondays to Fridays from 9am to 6pm, and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.

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