Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: The peasant's life, farming tools.
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Rake, scoop
Rake, scoop
 


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The farmer and his tools

    Let me also expound to you the situation of the peasant, that other tough occupation. [Comes] the inundation and soaks him..., he attends to his equipment. By day he cuts his farming tools; by night he twists rope. Even his midday hour he spends on farm labor. He equips himself to go to the field as if he were a warrior. The dried field lies before him; he goes out to get his team. When he has been after the herdsman for many days, he gets his team and comes back with it. He makes for it a place in the field. Comes dawn, he goes to make a start and does not find it in its place. He spends three days searching for it; he finds it in the bog. He finds no hides on them; the jackals have chewed them. He comes out, his garment in his hand, to beg for himself a team.
    When he reaches his field he finds [it?] broken up. He spends time cultivating, and the snake is after him. It finishes off the seed as it is cast to the ground. He does not see a green blade. He does three plowings with borrowed grain. His wife has gone down to the merchants and found nothing for barter. Now the scribe lands on the shore. He surveys the harvest. Attendant are behind him with staffs, Nubians with clubs. One says [to him]: "Give grain." "There is none." He is beaten savagely. He is bound, thrown in the well, submerged head down. His wife is bound in his presence. His children are in fetters. His neighbors abandon them and flee. When it is over, there is no grain.
Instruction in letter-writing made by the royal scribe Nebmare-nakht
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature ,University of California Press, 1976, I, pp. 168-173.
    Nebmare-nakht's description of the life a farmer may cowherds leading cattle, Source: The British Museum website have been tendentious, but it certainly describes the life of the vast majority of mankind through the ages until modern times. Farmers did have a difficult time. Often robbed of a large part of their produce they worked for long hours with little prospect of improvement.
    Egyptians had to part with a sizable portion of their crops too, but at least they received a certain amount of social security in exchange: when doing corvée work they were provisioned and royal granaries stored part of the corn [6] for emergencies.
 
    According to the Egyptian sources agriculture and livestock farming were apparently mostly in the hands of men. Women are occasionally shown as winnowers or gatherers but their role seems to have been minor. This view may be due to cultural prejudice on behalf of the ancient artists who frequently depicted labouring men and largely ignored the work done by women. In all known agricultural societies the wives and children of the peasants are to some extent involved in farming. One may suppose that the same was true in ancient Egypt. It has been proposed that women were the main growers of vegetables. The tending of vegetable gardens, like many female occupations vital to health and well-being and very labour-intensive, is but badly documented.

The tools

    Cattle were one of the power sources: Plough with bronze plough-share, Source: The British Museum website Wooden ploughs [4] were fastened to the horns of a couple of cows. The ploughs were lightly built as they did not have to turn over the soil. Still, sometimes they were shod with bronze like the one in the picture on the left.
    Other animals performed agricultural tasks too. Instead of covering the seeds by harrowing, pigs, sheep or goats were used to tread them into the ground. Animals did the husking of the emmer when they were driven around the threshing floors.
    But most of the work was done by humans, with implements seemingly designed to render the task as backbreaking as possible.
Hoe, Source: The British Museum website     Hoes [3] consisted of a wooden handle not much longer than the lower arm. A wooden blade was connected to it, but could not be set immovably as we are accustomed to nowadays. Instead its position vis-à-vis the handle was determined by a piece of rope.
    The shortness of the handle required the hoer to work bending down, which put great strain on the back. (To this day, hoe handles are shorter in southern than in northern countries.)
Shadouf, A.B.Edwards: A thousand miles up the Nile-     The Nile did all the fertilizing needed and much of the irrigation. But some crops had to be watered continually and since the 16th century BCE the shadouf, a container tied to a pivoting pole with a counterweight, was used to raise water to higher levels. The height difference was less than 3 metres and the amount raised smaller than 2 litres per second.

Shadouf, 19th century CE
A.B.Edwards: A thousand miles up the Nile

    Norias, wheels equiped with buckets, came into use during Roman times.
Sickle, Source: The British Museum website     Sickles [2], made of two pieces of wood, had the form of a donkey's lower jaw, with serrated pieces of flint in place of the teeth set in a groove and glued tight. These flints were often prepared with two edges, so they could easily be re-used. The serration is vital. When smooth edged flints were used in an experiment cutting corn stalks, they very quickly lost their edge.
    When harvesting, the reaper held the ears in his left hand and cut the stalks with a sweeping motion of the sickle towards his body.
Winnowing fork and grain scoop, Source: University of Michigan website-     By Roman times sickles were generally made of iron: a tapered iron arch with a tang at the wide end for fastening a wooden handle to it. The inside of this arch had a groove along its whole length into which serrated steel strips could be fitted.
 
Worker with pitchfork

Old Kingdom farmhand with pitchfork
Relief of Ptahsekhemankh, 5th dynasty
W. S. Smith, Country Life in Ancient Egypt, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, plate 32

    The wheat was spread on the threshing floor and animals were driven over it, their trampling separating husk from corn. The remaining stalks were removed with a winnowing fork and the mixture of chaff and grain thrown into the air with scoops. The lighter chaff would be carried off by the wind separating it from the heavier grain unaffected by the wind.
    The Roman period implements above were built as light as possible. [1]
    Horticulturists and vintners had a number of specialized tools. The sycamore fig, a tree popular since earliest times for its fruit, wood and shade, needed special treatment, as the pollinating wasp had not been introduced together with the tree. Theophrastus (371-286 BCE) said of the Egyptian sycamore fig that it cannot ripen unless it is scraped, but they scrape it with iron claws; the fruit thus scraped ripens in four days [5].

Iron pruning hook, found at Karanis, Greco-Roman period; Source: University of Michigan website     Pruning trees and vines required stout knives, which if you lived during the Graeco-Roman period and could afford it, had iron blades [1].

 


[6] Corn: mostly wheat, some barley.

- -Agriculture
-The grain harvest
 
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-[1] Farming at Karanis
-[2] Sickle (British Museum)
-[3] Hoes and sickle (British Museum)
-[4] Plough (British Museum)
-[5] Ancient Egyptian Agriculture and the Origins of Horticulture by Jules Janick, Purdue University
 

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© November 2001
Minor changes:
August 2006
December 2005
September 2003
January 2003

 

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