Dead Sea

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 4)

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.


Sacred Ways and Field Labors

Recent studies of earthenware ostracha from the fortress of Arad near the Dead Sea discovered in the 1960s date to approximately 600 BC during the reign of King Jehoiakim (II Kings 24) and reveal the prevalence of grain, flour, and bread deliveries along with wine and oil to the remotest desert reaches of the Kingdom of Judah. Written in ancient Hebrew using the Aramaic alphabet, these pottery shards served as vouchers presented to the commander to issue supplies from the fort’s storehouses. The Prophet Ezekiel served as a priest among the Jewish exiles to Babylon during this period and makes specific reference to wheat, emmer, barley, lentils, and other crops (e.g., 4:16, 5:16) in the context of early references to the “staff of bread,” which was life’s great sustainer in the ancient world. Basic units of common linear measurement owe their origin to grain; as the length of two barley kernels represented the Old Testament “finger-breadth” of three-tenths of an inch, twenty-four were an eight-inch “span,” and forty-eight a “cubit” of sixteen inches.

Anglican scholar-priest Rev. Philip Carrington (1892-1975), Metropolitan of Canada, undertook extensive study on the relationship between the first century arrangement of Mark’s gospel into a lectionary series that relates the ancient Jewish ritual year and Galilean lunar agricultural cycle to key events in the life of Christ. Carrington proposes that this sequence of Christ’s public Galilean ministry—the culmination of his life on earth, involving the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Seed-time and Harvest Parables, and other agrarian-related discourses and happenings significantly shaped the “Primitive Christian Calendar” that in turn gave rise to the Early Church’s liturgical calendar. 

In commentary on Mark’s culminating New Testament message of resurrection, Carrington writes of the “mystical and symbolical way of thought which was natural to men at that time, and found expression in art and poetry and ritual and drama and religion. In the springtime life returns from the underworld in leaves and grasses and flowers; when the harvest comes, it is cut down in the shape of fruit and grain; it dies, but it will come again. Such is the destiny of man. Old Nature, who is the mother of mankind, reflects on her many-coloured drama on the destiny of her divine son. Such is the truth that underlies the old way of thought.” Carrington concludes that the culture of the disciples was connected to the old festivals, and that their memories “would tend to arrange themselves in the order of the Calendar Year; and seeing that the Lord chose to express himself in these surroundings in the terms of the old agricultural and festal mysticism. And, if so, we may ourselves enter into the tradition and gain some understanding of it, not merely by literary and critical study along these lines, but by passing through the devotional course of the Christian Year, as it has come down to us in the Church.”

Agricultural laws that guided ancient Hebrew spiritual and civil life are described in the third century AD Mishnaic collection of oral traditions and include blessings for foods and landowner obligations to provide produce for the Levites of the temple, priests, and the poor. In a medieval commentary on Jewish piety, Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, Rabbi Elezar Ben Judah of Worms (c. 1126-1238) celebrated the Hebrew agrarian ideal: “God created the world so all should live in pleasantness, that all shall be equal, that one should not lord over the other, and that all may cultivate the land.” Faith-based perspectives on creation stewardship were expressed by 16th century French theologian John Calvin: “The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that… we should take care of what remains. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly yield, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.”

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences,   GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences, GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

American Country Life Movement leader Liberty Hyde Bailey elaborated on this ethic in his 1915 classic, The Holy Earth: “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it….. We are to consider it religiously: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ …I do not mean all this, for our modern world, in any vague or abstract way. If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy.” A landowner’s obligation as steward of the earth’s bounty also extended to the less fortunate. One of the earliest biblical references to gleaning (Leviticus 23:22) appears in instructions on the principal Hebrew feasts and ritual thank offering (Todah) of the first grain harvest sheaves to be waved and presented to the priests: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.” From these and related Mosaic references (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:19), Jewish laws developed that were fundamentally different than prevailing customs in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world where such rights were not extended to the poor. These customs guided the process of gleaning, a practice that still continues in some rural areas of Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. (English “glean” is from Anglo-French glener, “to collect, gather,” a word derived from Latin glennāre which is probably of Celtic origin.)

Old Testament prohibitions of representational art influenced the rich expression of literary imagery in Hebrew literature. While Greek aesthetics were occupied with spatial unity and static forms of sculpture, the Hebrew mind understood God as the ideal so such literature often incorporates mixed metaphors for more tactile expressions of meaning, often in the context of agrarian experience that marked the seasons with times and festivals for planting, harvest, threshing, and winnowing. One of the finest examples is the c. 10th century BC story of Ruth which relates her rescue by a kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, after her travels to the land of her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the aftermath of famine in Israel. The author’s imagery is as much about Hebrew culture as theological doctrine, and forthrightly describes the women’s sojourn, fidelity, and redemption amidst opening scenes that follow the workers’ harvest: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of field belonging to Boaz...” (Ruth 2:2-3).

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches;   Left: Folio 6— An Ironic Turn of Events  (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right);   Center: Folio 12— Gideon, Most Valiant of Men  (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left);   Right: Folio 17— Ruth Meets Boaz  (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right);   The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches; Left: Folio 6—An Ironic Turn of Events (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right); Center: Folio 12—Gideon, Most Valiant of Men (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left); Right: Folio 17—Ruth Meets Boaz (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right); The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz;   Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz; Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Beneath the familiar tale rests a complex doubling motif in theme and between poor and rich, women and men, and threshing and waiting. The interplay is evident throughout the narrative and poetic couplets to amplify the contrast between destitution and bounty. The famine experienced by Naomi and her family was in Bethlehem—literally “House of Bread,” but her sons perish in Moab, the land of bounty. Divine deliverance is timeless and confounds human reason. Cereal provisions were an important indication of blessing. Wheat (hittim) and barley (s’orim) breads likely made up almost half of the Hebrew diet and was served in some form at virtually every meal that also may have featured parched or boiled grains in mixtures with fruits and in gruels. The ubiquity of wholesome grains in Ruth throughout the Bible speaks of their nutritional, intellectual, and spiritual significance in Hebrew culture. Harvest time happenings, familiar to most any inhabitant of Moab or Judah, provide the context for lessons on how God provides deliverance to the ordinary faithful in a world of injustice and chaos.

The short four-chapter book’s timeless theme of redemption from deprivation and distress to promise of new life has inspired generations of believers, authors, and artists with styles ranging from the Baroque formalism of Barent Pietersz Fabritius to Marc Chagall’s richly flowing Surrealism. An early 14th century Jewish prayer book from Germany illustrates Ruth’s story in lush gold, red, and blue tones. Although the scene depicts the grain rakes, threshing flails, and clothing of medieval Europe, it faithfully depicts Boaz’s care and the blessing of the harvest. Thomas Rooke’s idealist 19th century interpretation shows the couple and Naomi as they might have appeared in the garb of ancient times, but other renderings like Jean-François Millet’s evocative Harvesters Resting (1850) are cast in settings of the artists’ lifetimes to suggest the ancient story’s abiding relevance.

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.