In pre-industrial societies, agriculture was the backbone of most economies. This is true in ancient times and very much evident in ancient Egypt. Five thousand years ago a mighty kingdom emerged when a chain of independent city-states lining the River Nile united to support one Pharaoh. Thousands of years later the great empire built by the rulers of the Nile continue to be a magnet for the casual historian as well as the more serious archaeologist who wanted to learn more about this ancient civilization. In this study I will take a closer look at one aspect of ancient Egypt, the agriculture sector.
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Immersing into the life and times of ancient Egypt was like riding a time machine. In order to fully understand ancient Egyptian culture, one has to trace the development of the civilization from prehistoric times, and how it became the most dominant civilization in the Mediterranean region. Then one has to do the reverse tracing its development backwards. This is like digging up for long lost treasure, the top soil is contemporary history, and then the next layer of subsoil is medieval history and finally the ancient period. In the case of Egypt the first layer is Egypt under the rule of Arabs and then the next layer is Egypt under the rule of the Roman Empire, digging deeper one will see Egypt under Alexander the Great, and then finally, Egypt under the rule of the Pharaohs.
By digging a little deeper I traveled back to time 3,000 years before the time of Jesus Christ. Using the Bible as a reference point may be confusing to some and so to simplify, I traveled back 5,000 years into the past. Alighting from my imaginary time machine I saw a wooden sickle. I picked it up felt its rough-hewn wooden exterior and when I saw the flint imbedded into the groove I immediately realized I was transported back to time. I looked around and saw the farmers coming out, it is harvest season and I snapped out of it. I am back to reality. I have to go back digging facts I am determined to know more about that artifact and how it was used exactly in ancient Egypt.
Once the inhabitants of Egypt learned how to cultivate the soil, they were on the path to greatness. It took a long time to forge a nation out of disparate city-states lined along the Nile River. But it would be difficult to defend their territories against an army of marauders if they are not united as one cohesive unit. So they offered their services to a Pharaoh that ruled Lower and Upper Egypt. In the beginning of the dynastic period Egypt began to emerge as one of the dominant civilizations in the Mediterranean realm. After a while the influence of the Egyptian Empire will spread far and wide.
But before an ancient kingdom can become rich and powerful, it has to take care of one basic requirement and it is none other than food. The rest of the tribes and people groups in the world are hunters and gatherers. They are nomads moving from place to place unable to make permanent settlements and therefore unable to build a kingdom. Those who mastered the art and science of food production can stay in one place and build a government, developed fortifications to defend from raiders and from that point forward the development can turn into something more impressive such as a nation ruled by a king and defended by a well-trained army.
The first step into this kingdom building process is to choose a place where the fertility of the soil can be expected on an annual basis. In this regard the Egyptians were fortunate to have the Nile River. This river system allows for the flooding of the plains from July to December this is called the Aketo period. During this time the farmlands are submerged in water and nutrients coming from the river get deposited into the soil. The other areas that could not be reached by the Nile’s precious water can be watered using irrigation canals.
If there is flooding, then there will also be an outflow period. This is called the Peleto period and this from December to March. Since this is the coolest season and since the flooding had already receded, it is also the best time to plant. The farmers would wait until the ground is firm enough that they can walk on it and then proceed with planting. Plowing was done using a beast of burden and a farm implement. After preparing the soil planting was done by hand, sowing the seeds by scattering it over the ground. A group of animals usually follow the farmer and their job is to trample on the seed so that it will be pushed down into the soft earth.
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Ancient Egypt is near Africa and one could just imagine that it is a dry country made fertile only by the Nile River. For this reason Egypt is not abundant in all kinds of plant species. The farmers must carefully choose the right grain to plant, the one that will adapt well to the dry climate and the unique conditions of a land irrigated by seasonal flooding. In this regard the most popular crops are wheat and barley. The wheat is mainly for sustenance and used to make bread. The barley is for making beer. Thus, drinking alcoholic beverages is an ancient pastime.
Almost everyone in ancient Egyptian society was involved in agriculture. There is interaction with the peasant farmer, the wealthy landowner or bureaucrat as well as the government officials who made sure that farming was done in an orderly manner. This means paying the correct amount of taxes when it is due. They have their own version of an internal revenue system that kicks into full gear during harvest season. This is the dry period called Syumu in the ancient language and this covers the month from March to July.
The scribes will come in and measure the size of the field. This is to make sure that the government has the correct estimate of the projected yield. This will not only ensure that proper taxes will be paid at the end of harvest season but it will also ensure that there will be no cheating. It can be argued that the money was used to build a more efficient army as well as to improve the irrigation system. It is interesting to note that as early as 5,000 years ago taxation was already a problem for many. At least, from the perspective of the taxpayers this is a true statement.
Everything is ready. The internal revenue system is ready to collect money. The grains are ready for harvest and the farmer is eager to bring the harvest into designated storage facilities but without the necessary farm implement it would be difficult to bring the harvest in. Thus, the Egyptians developed a tool that will not only speed up the process of harvesting grain but also to minimize wastage. The tool must be easy to handle while at the same time efficient enough to cut the stalks of the wheat and barley.
The sickle that was discovered earlier was created in the 30th century B.C. It was excavated in the Saggara Necropolis. This means that Egyptians were buried with this farm implement attesting to its importance in their lives. It is also suggested that the sickle will not only be used in the afterlife for farming purposes but can also be used by the deceased as a weapon to defend himself or herself from enemies in the afterlife. This could mean that the sickle is part farm tool and part weapon.
The design of the sickle tells so much about the 30th century B.C. The primitive design is consistent with the idea that during this time the Kingdom of Egypt was just starting to grow into a dominant force. The sickle is nothing fancy but it was efficiently designed. The curved handle makes it easy for a swiping and cutting motion. The groove allows for sharp flint to be inserted into it. But there is one more interesting feature of this ancient sickle.
The flint blades are help in place by a resinous substance that has yet to be identified by experts. Moreover, the serrated blade was not made of metal but flint blades. This means that during this period the Egyptians did not yet master metallurgy and not yet sophisticated enough to use metal tools.
Egyptian Archaeologists were able to learn more about the sickle because a ceremonial version was unearthed in 1922 AD. It was a model sickle used by Tutankhamun during Peret the annual harvest feast. It was created during the 18th Dynasty and it is made of gilded wood. The dimensions are 40 centimeters in height and 40 centimeters in length. This ceremonial sickle may have the same dimensions as an ordinary sickle. But it is more for show than for practical purposes because instead of sharp flint the serrated blade in the original design was replaced by colored glass.
It must be pointed out that the Egyptians were not only limited to wheat and barley. In small gardens they were able to plant vegetables such as broad beans, lentils and onions. They also learned how to grow grapes and fruits such as dates, figs, rhamnus, sycamore, and pomegranates. But the most important breakthrough in farming is the discovery of winter wheat. When the Egyptians mastered the use of this special type of grain the Pharaohs were able to build a much stronger kingdom because they were able to practically defeat food shortages. A well-fed army is a strong army and so Egypt went on to become a mighty empire in the Mediterranean region.
The humble wooden sickle played a major part in the creation of a mighty kingdom that was so powerful and so influential that the Bible mentioned it several times. Even today ancient Egypt inspires awe and continues to attract top scholars into the field of Egyptology. There is much to discover underneath the ruins of the empire. But going back to the sickle, the proponent of this study realized that a full understanding of the farm implement can only be achieved if an in-depth study of the life and times of the ancient Egyptians can be completed first. It will help provide insights such as the level of sophistication of Egyptian society during the 30th century B.C. when united Egypt was just beginning its ascent into greatness.