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Ancient Egypt: The grain harvest

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Sickle - Source: Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, rowohlt
Sickle with inset flint teeth
(Source: "Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad", Rowohlt Verlag)


The Grain Harvest

Resting     Harvest time was a time of intense labour. People worked from sun-up to sun-down, taking occasional breaks for drinking and eating. If they were working for somebody else, an overseer would see to it they didn't dawdle. The payment for the harvest season's work was generally the amount of grain a worker could reap in one day.


    The ears were cut off the stalks with flint [1]  sickles and left on the ground. Thus the reapers did not have to bend over low and less bulk had to be transported to the threshing floor. Women labourers followed the men gathering the sheaves of ears into baskets. These women in their turn were followed by the local poor, mostly women and children, trying to pick up all the grain missed by the others and begging the reapers for alms.
    These gleaners were probably often the butt for the jokes or the anger of the farmer. The scribe Amenemope reminds the more fortunate to be patient with those who can barely make ends meet:

Do not pounce on a widow when you find her in the fields
And then fail to be patient with her reply.
The Instruction of Amenemope
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, p.161

Transporting grain     The stalks were left standing for the livestock for the livestock to feed on.
    In Upper Egypt donkeys were sometimes used to transport the corn [2] to the threshing floor, but mostly it was carried by two men in a sack, fastened to a wooden frame and connected to five metre long carrying poles.

preparing for threshing-     The threshing floor, an area of hard packed soil, was carefully cleaned and the sheaves were raked into a thick carpet of corn. It was of symbolic and practical importance: the place where the corn - the wealth of Egypt - was measured after it had been dehusked.
Do not conspire with the measurer,
So as to defraud the share of the Residence.
Greater is the might of the threshing floor
Than an oath by the great throne.
The Instruction of Amenemope
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.157

threshing     The mechanical separation of husk and grain was done by cattle or sheep which were driven over the floor by men wielding sticks, treading the kernels out of their husks.
    Emmer, the first kind of corn widely grown in Egypt, was more difficult to dehusk than later domesticated wheat varieties.

winnowing- Sifting corn. Source: Lepsius     The straw was swept away with brooms and the corn winnowed by throwing it into the air and letting the wind carry off the lighter chaff. Sometimes sieves were used as in the Old Kingdom depiction on the right.
    Some of the chaff and straw was used in the production of mudbricks. The strength of bricks was tripled by these additions.

measuring the grain     Scribes measured the harvested grain and recorded the amounts meticulously on their tablets.
    The results of the harvests may have been satisfactory for the upper classes, who described Ptah's largesse to Ramses II at Abu Simbel:
I give to thee constant harvests, to feed the Two Lands at all times; the sheaves thereof are like the sand of the shore, their granaries approach heaven and their grain heaps are like the mountains.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 404
Peasants and farm labourers on the other hand often had difficulties making ends meet.


surveyor-     The temptation to increase the size of one's fields by encroaching on a neighbour's has existed in all agricultural societies. The Egyptian moralists warned against this:
Do not move the markers on the borders of fields,
Nor shift the position of the measuring-cord.
Do not be greedy for a cubit of land.
Nor encroach on the boundaries of a widow.
The Instruction of Amenemope
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, p.
The state tried to prevent cheating by keeping a tight control on land distribution. The measuring and re-measuring of the fields was also important for tax assessment.
    Surveyors measured the fields with measuring ropes, in order to calculate their area and assess the quantity of grain owed as taxes. Egyptian scribes were pretty good at figuring, even if their way of calculating was somewhat cumbersome.


Grain silo     The grain silos were built in walled enclosures, carefully plaster-coated on the inside and whitewashed outside. In order to store the grain, the workers had to climb stairs to a small window near the top of the cone, carrying baskets. Through a little door at the bottom corn could be taken out.
    The mudbrick walls of the silos were quite sturdy, yet not impenetrable. Rats and mice found their way into the stores, spoiling significant amounts of grain and against corn eating insects the Egyptians were powerless.

    Harvest home was a time for thanking the snake goddess Ranuta, patron goddess of the vintners as well, for her bounty. Sheaves of corn, fowls, cucumbers and watermelons, loaves of bread and fruit were offered to her. Pharaoh himself thanked the fertility god Min with a sheaf of wheat in front of great crowds during the festivities in the first month of Shemu, the season of harvest. Local gods all over Egypt were not forgotten. At Asyut the first of the corn gathered was sacrificed to the local god Wepwawet.

Picture source:
Colour pictures from a wall painting in the tomb of Menna, Thebes: Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
[1] The wooden sickles with flint teeth were replaced during the Late Period by iron sickles.
[2] Mostly wheat, some barley.


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