Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 1)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


The advent of grain foods cannot be dated with precision, but archaeological evidence indicates humans in eastern Africa mixed crushed grain with water to form gruel as early as 100,000 years ago. Cooking on heated stones, with embers, and by other primitive means enabled the roasting and toasting of grains to enhance flavors, but the revolutionary advent of fire-resistant earthenware pots in the Middle East by the eighth millennium BC fostered a significant advancement in human nutrition, culture, and population growth. Grains boiled in water made possible a savory array of pottages, soups, and stews, with the softened food especially benefiting the very young and elderly. No culinary advance since the invention of earthenware has had such a salutary effect on cooking methods.

Enduring methods of gathering crops from the Neolithic past to relatively modern times involved use of sickles to cut stands of wheat, barley, and other grains that were harvested at least 10,000 years ago in the Karaca Dağ region of southern Turkey and throughout Mesopotamia. The oldest extant complete sickle, fashioned with sharpened flints about 9,000 years ago and found in the Nahal Hemar Cavenear the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, is held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. First made of flints embedded into animal jawbones with cypress resin and honey, cast metal sickles began to appear during the Middle Bronze Age about 2,000 BC. The advent of this revolutionary tool helped spur humanity’s agricultural revolution that gave rise to civilizations by providing reliable food supplies and facilitating city life.

Cultivation of cereal grains has been integral to humanity’s advance since time immemorial. Cereals, named for the Roman goddess of fertility, Ceres, are not only nutritious but also adaptable to a wide range of climates and soil conditions. The ancestral range of modern cereal grains stretched along the Fertile Crescent from the Anatolian slopes of southeastern Turkey—where locals believe Adam first tilled the ground, eastward across the Transcaucasus and Mesopotamia to Kashmir and south to Ethiopia. This vast region is notable for long, hot summers and mild, moist winters which was ideal for the emergence of large-seeded cereals that became the principal foods sources that fueled human expansion throughout the world. The advent of grain cultivation coincided with animal husbandry as villagers sought to prevent creatures of horn and hoof from damaging grain fields by domesticating them. These developments spurred the Neolithic Revolution in Upper Mesopotamia approximately 9000 BC and represented the key breakthrough in civilization leading to food surpluses and the rise of settled, urban populations.

By 5000 BC these primitive self-pollinating plants—capable of evolving more rapidly than any other known organism, had spread along the Mediterranean coast to the Iberian Peninsula and north of the Caucasus Mountains. Some two thousand years later wheat reached the British Isles. Dispersion of cereal grains by wind, animals, and other natural processes was inexorable if slow—perhaps a thousand yards per year on average. Successive plant selections by early farmers led to earlier maturing stands. These native landrace wheats gained a foothold in central Europe and Scandinavia by about 3000 BC via the Danube, Rhine, and Dnieper river valleys. Humanity’s original farmers were most likely women of Neolithic times who tended hearth, home, and hoe while men ranged widely to hunt diminishing herds, first selected grains for kernel size and heads that were less susceptible to normal shattering.

These prehistoric stands of grain were cut by early agriculturalists yielding bone sickles embedded with obsidian blades sharper than later serrated metal versions that date to at least 2000 BC in the Middle Bronze Age. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle to be “the most aesthetically designed implement to have evolved from a thousand subtle variations” over millennia. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley imagines a proto-agrarian scene—likely one of many, when immense prehistoric creatures of horn and hoof still roamed the Levantine valleys, Anatolian highlands, and beyond: “[T]he hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand.”

Novelist James Michener personifies the experience, surely rediscovered separately innumerable times throughout the prehistoric Middle East, in The Source, which opens along a Galilean wadi near the Mediterranean coast in the early tenth century BC. The Family of Ur is one of six in a clan that separates in the fall for the men’s annual boar hunt while the women remain near their makeshift fictional village of Makor. Here Ur’s wife considers their recent conversation about the wild wheat that has long supplemented their diet: “By holding back some of the harvest and keeping it dry in a pouch of deerskin, the grains could be planted purposefully in the spring and the wheat could be made to grow exactly where and when it was needed, and with this discovery the family of Ur moved close to the beginnings of a self-sufficient society. They did not know it, but if a food supply could be insured, the speed of change would be almost unbelievable: within a few thousand years cities would be feasible and civilizations too.”

Through the woman’s revolutionary experience, Michener further ponders the profound ramifications of these events for world religion, social structure, and the environment. He then turns to Ur’s apprehension of his wife’s prescient labors: “In his new apotheosis as [land]owner Ur began to bring new fields into cultivation…. Men of the Family of Ur had always possessed an intuitive sense of the land, and now it was the reluctant farmer who discovered one of the essential mysteries of the earth on which all subsequent agriculture would depend….” The family’s primitive agrarian endeavors soon lead by trial and error to awareness of the grain’s need for adequate water and fertile soil. These experiences laid the foundation of an agrarian savvy that would be carried down for several hundred generations until the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and population expansion presented farmers with unprecedented new conditions of challenge and opportunity.

These first farmers also came to prefer “free-threshing” stands that better enabled separation of kernels from their “hooded” husks.  Among several dozen other ancient plant candidates for cultivation, these transitional grain species offered other significant benefits including flavor and nutrition, availability, storage, and portability. In these ways, wheat genotypes gradually came to grow more uniformly around early settlements from Egypt and the Jordan River Valley to Mesopotamia and across the Eurasian steppe to Manchuria. Grains grew for millennia across these landscapes amidst a mélange of irregular “off-types,” wildflowers, grasses, and other plants. Yields improved significantly following the advent of the plow about two thousand years ago, and varieties that descended from these ancient grains have come today to supply nearly one-third of humanity’s nutritional needs. Earliest examples of Sumerian cuneiform dating to c. 3000 BC at tells in Iraq show pictographs that eventually led to written language. Many of these baked clay tablets are inventories related to grain harvests, storage, and transactions. Procurement and trade in cereal grains were key factors in the growth of ancient empires and the organization of Mesopotamian and Egyptian political institutions.

The earliest pictorial expressions of harvest are from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BC) when unification of Upper and Lower Egypt led to a flowering of culture and architecture in grand monuments like the mortuary complexes at Thebes and Memphis in the fertile Nile Valley. The necropolis of Saqqara near the kingdom’s capital at Memphis contains the exceptionally well-preserved Fifth Dynasty mastaba of Ty, an official of the royal household, whose tomb contains an exquisitely decorated chapel. The room’s north wall contains ten rows of detailed paintings with accompanying hieroglyphics that depict the sequence of the harvest season (Shemu) from March to May of flax, barley, and wheat, and subsequent grain threshing, winnowing, and storage.

 “Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

“Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

The spectacular images of Egyptian harvests are significant for their literal depictions of ancient Nile harvests and grain processing, and for the more profound religious meanings represented in such art. In the case of Ty’s mastaba reliefs, which show evidence in style and colors as the work of a master, viewers can appreciate the complexity of ancient farming operations that reveal various field operations and the division of labor required to bring them to completion. In the opening barley harvest panel, eight men wield broad-bladed sickles in their right hands while clasping the stems with their left, and a worker follows to gather and stack the cuttings. The next scene more clearly shows the characteristic lighter shade and shorter stalks of barley that attest to the artist’s attention to botanical authenticity. A flutist and cantor are also seen accompanying the reapers in order to provide rhythm and pace to such strenuous labor. The hieroglyph of an upright bearded grain spike appears in the next panel of workers and sheaves to indicate harvest of emmer wheat, the most valuable Egyptian crops for making bread. The next row shows men under the watchful eye of an overseer placing the stacks of sheaves into netted bags for transport to nearby threshing floors by donkey—a beast of burden widely used in the Egyptian countryside to this day.

The brief hieroglyphic interjections that accompany these images may be the work of the artist, but may well be by another artisan. The symbols conjure thoughts of commotion and shouting more than any measured routine accompanied by clapping and music. The terms used include “beat,” “hurry,” and “drive them.” The next threshing floor scene seems chaotic as men struggle to lead separate teams of oxen and donkeys around the circle to trample out the precious grain from the mass of stalks. Coordinating the animals’ variable pace and distances, cleaning up behind them, and recurrent removal of threshed cuttings to maximize efficiency required substantial coordination and stamina. Women appear in the subsequent winnowing scene to clean the grain by tossing the threshings into the wind, while other workers scoop the kernels into bags for transport to storage silos. Most of the men are lightly clad in loincloths though some have kilt-like garments, while the women use scarves to tie up their hair and wear loincloths and transparent dresses held up by shoulder straps. The tools of harvest shown in the panels are similar to those that would be widely used throughout the world until the twentieth century—sickles, rakes, and pitchforks to reap and thresh, and sieves, brooms, and scoops to clean and store.

In a metaphoric sense, such magnificent art that decorated tombs, monuments, and public buildings in ancient Egypt also bore profound cosmological significance since the primal association between human existence and agrarian experience harkens back to the dawn of civilization. Ideas about life and eternity found expression in priestly ceremonies and sacred writings like Egypt’s agricultural Coffin Texts and book The Coming Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead). The implements of cultivation, tools for harvest, and means of transport variously found in tombs at places like Memphis represent the mystical course undertaken through just living and proper burial. These stages honored since time immemorial include birth (seeding and germination), growth (hoeing and weeding), and death (reaping and threshing) to afterlife in the underworld’s flax and grain Fields of Hotep (boats to the place of “contentment”).

Death was celebrated as the ultimate “harvest of life” symbolized in ancient times by a reaper’s sickle. At the pinnacle of the kingdom’s highly stratified society, the pharaoh represented the vital pulse of this cosmic consciousness in each generation and honored throughout the seasons in agrarian-based religious rituals. Cultural patterns and religious understandings are evident in similar ways in Mesopotamia and in Greek and Roman religious traditions. Yet these ancient societies existed without proscribed moral obligations for the ruling class and landowners to care for the poor by permitting practices like field gleaning. To be sure, agricultural workers were valued for the essential labor they provided, but not in the Hebrew sense that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and the Levitical code affirming the right to glean not only to the people of Israel, but to the “sojourner” (i. e., foreigners) as well.