Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 7)

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.

North African Threshers and Gallic-Roman Reapers

During the summer of 1914, a team of Italian archaeologists excavating near Tripoli near the ancient seaside village of Buc Ammera uncovered the substantial (19 x 13 feet) and well preserved mosaic floor of a Roman villa. Named for the area’s principal oasis, these and other smaller Zliten mosaics date to about 200 AD and include a colorful allegory of summer showing a winged, sickle bearing Ceres holding grain stalks, as well as depictions of everyday life that feature a remarkable threshing scene. Libyan coloni are shown beating pairs of horses and oxen to lead them around a wide pile of grain stalks. A large tree heavy with ripened olives shades an aristocratically clad woman who appears to supervise the operation as it takes place below a substantial Roman country villa. The artist’s depiction of the figures in action imparts a sense of their boisterous tasks that likely took place on the estate day after day beneath the hot North African sun.

  Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD);   R. Bartoccini,  Guida del Museo di Tripoli  (1923)

Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD); R. Bartoccini, Guida del Museo di Tripoli (1923)

The shape of the one-handed sickle and mode of threshing in the Zliten mosaics suggest that the harvest methods known from ancient times had changed little by the third century AD’s cusp of Roman Empire expansion and continental influence. The era would witness displacement by the end of the first millennium AD of older unbalanced sickle forms long used as far away as Scandinavia and central Russia. The famous Maktar Harvester funerary stele inscription, discovered a century ago in central Tunisia, likely dates to the third century AD and relates a reaper’s prideful account of being “born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father” who nevertheless managed through years of hard work in the harvest fields and capable management of roving bands of itinerant harvesters (turmae mesorum) to become a Roman censor. Seasonal migrations of “sickle-bearing gangs of men” brought annual journeys to North Africa’s “Fields of Jupiter” and across the vast fertile plains of Numidia. The Harvester’s epitaph relates, “This effort and my frugal life brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home lacks nothing.” Enduring rural values of hard work and honesty are implicit in the rather fulsome tribute, which the author concludes with counsel for his readers: “laedit atrox discite mortals… (Learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach).”

Pliny’s Natural History describes use of sledges, flails, and the hooves of horses to separate out the kernels on hardened threshing floors. He also notes the existence of a remarkable harvesting device he termed a vallus that he had seen in use during his time of Roman military service in Gaul. Pliny described it as, “a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, …driven through the standing grain, the beasts being yoked behind it. The result is that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame.” Twentieth century discoveries of limestone funerary bas-reliefs of this Gallic-Roman reaper, which functioned more like a stripper with stationary serrated teeth that collected ripened grain heads in the storage receptacle, have been discovered in Arlon, Reims, and Koblenz. The image of this remarkable device also appears on the decorative panels of Reims’ immense third century AD Porte de Mars. Standing nearly forty feet high, the city’s grand Mars Gate featured colorful calendar scenes, now substantially deteriorated, above the central vault that show rural labors associated with each month.

The appearance of an animal-powered reaper with adjustable height during this period and its depiction on such prominent objects suggest the machine’s significance to its owners for reduced labor. Flanking the Porte de Mars’ August picture of a worker tending this remarkable device are also the first known images of long-handled scythes, seen on the July panel both in use and being sharpened by Roman reapers. Archaeological evidence shows the advent of the scythe in Western Europe as early as the second century, though typically in the context of mowing hay. The earliest known picture of a scythe in a written work is from the Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD) in which a barefoot worker is shown holding the tool across his shoulders. Archaeological remains of the heavy iron blades in the Rhine Valley, however, date to the late Roman period.

  Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD);   Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany;   Wikimedia Commons

Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD); Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany; Wikimedia Commons

This cluster of locations suggests a core heartland of agricultural innovation during the late Roman period on the fertile eastern plains of the empire’s Gallia Belgica province. A principal artery of the Roman Via Agrippa highway network led from its capital at Reims (Roman Durocotorum) to Trier (Augusta) where it divided into routes further eastward to Koblenz (Confluentes) and Mainz (Moguntiacum). This panoramic region between the Marne and Rhine rivers, where the boundaries of present Belgium, France, and Germany converge, became a strategic Roman “bread basket” much as Ukraine’s black earth steppes and America’s Midwest prairie lands would supply their peoples. Historians attribute the Gallic-Roman reaper-stripper’s disappearance by early medieval times to such factors as inefficient cutting design, especially in times of high humidity, and the collapse of Roman administration in the wake of fifth century invasions by the Franks. But dispersion outward of technological advancements is evident in the appearance of an array of distinct sickle and scythe designs adapted to local conditions in places surrounding the Reims-Trier corridor to Germany, France, the Low Countries, and in southern Britain.

  Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD);   Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD); Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

European farmers developed a remarkable array of blade sizes and edges (smooth or serrated), curvature angles, and handle lengths associated with prevailing smithing conventions and local crop conditions. In areas susceptible to lodging, for example, where stalks fell over from wind and rain, farmers could salvage more flattened grain with sickles, weedy crops were also often cut with sickles to avoid gathering unwanted plants, and sickles preserved taller straw if needed for thatching. Great areas could be harvested with scythes, however, and important considerations in places with shorter growing seasons, and lighter grasses were more efficiently mowed with a scythe for hay. No clear linear progression of sickle and scythe development is indicated in the archaeological or artistic record since a range of styles emerged over time based on local conditions and cultural exchange. But Danish scholar Axel Steensberg (1906-1999), eminent historian of ancient and medieval harvesting implements, found physical evidence of general trends originating with the diffusion of at least three basic Middle East Late Bronze Age tool designs (c. 2000-1500 BC)—the bronze sickle, short-handled scythe, and hook sickle. With the advent of iron smithing relatively shortly afterward and expansion of the Roman Empire, the sickle expanded northward during the Early Iron Age to become (I) the angular iron La Tène (Swiss) and Viking sickles of the Roman era; the (II) short-handled bronze scythe evolved into the short Italian crescentic and northern European short scythes; while the bronze hook sickle became (III) medieval Europe’s familiar balanced sickle with broadly curved, longer blade, and (IV) long-handled scythe (from Transylvania to Germany and Central Europe).

Mediterranean landrace grains spread throughout western and central Europe along Roman military and trade routes, and often grew together in such field cultures “mixes” as maslin (winter wheat and rye—French metail, Dutch masteluin), beremancorn (winter barley and rye), and dredge (spring barley and oats). Many farmers of late Roman and early medieval times planted single grain crops in two-year rotations (winter- and spring-sown) along with soil-enriching legumes like peas, beans, and peas that improved soil fertility and also provided cheap sources of protein. Farmers periodically rested, or fallowed, lands to conserve moisture, and these were kept as weed-free as possible by livestock, and periodic tilling. Depending on the area, rotations generally divided grains into higher valued bread cereals wheat and rye which were cut with the sickle for the most efficient harvesting, while the “lesser cereals” (French menus grains, Italian minuti) like barley, oats, and buckwheat that were sometimes harvested with a long-handled scythe. These latter grains could be used for food and fodder and while scything risked some loss from the shattering of stalks, use this larger tool made harvesting faster and easier.