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Mortar and pestle in history and heraldry

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Callie JonesFor more than a year, I have been writing every few weeks about aspects of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s heraldic ­insignia, beginning in September 2010 with a piece about the Society’s motto and moving on via the supporters of the shield to the various devices on the shield itself.

To complete the series, I turn now to the heraldic crest above the shield. Although the symbolism of some of the other motifs remains obscure, there is no doubt about the significance of the device chosen to appear in this prominent position — a representation of a mortar and pestle.

Mortars and pestles have been used for preparing medicinal products for thousands of years. Their earliest mention in this context appears in the world’s oldest preserved item of medical literature, the Ebers papyrus, which is an Egyptian document dating from around 1550BC.

But mortars have certainly been used in food preparation for much longer. They are thought to have first appeared at least 6,000 years before they were recorded in the Ebers papyrus.

Mortars and pestles are perhaps unique among mankind’s inventions in that their basic design has remained unchanged for 10,000 years or more. Early mortars were, however, generally shallower than modern examples and often stood on three stumpy feet. Why? Because they were then guaranteed not to wobble when placed on the rough work surfaces that preceded the smooth modern worktop.

During a recent Greek island holiday, I saw a fine example of such a mortar, from the 4th century BC, in the archaeological museum of Rhodes.

In the 1840s, when the Society received its grant of arms, the mortar and its accompanying pestle were essential items of pharmacy equipment and were well recognised as symbolic of the pharmacist’s specialist skills. It was therefore apt that the Society’s founders gave them a prominent position on the heraldic crest, where to this day they continue to represent the heritage of the profession.

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