Scythe

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.

 

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 6)

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 Georgic World and Roman Expansion

The Latin root of Ceres’ name, ker, is cognate to “cereal,” “create,” and “crescent,” while the name “Demeter” also relates to “matter” and “meter.” The latter word suggests the natural rhythms of nature less known since the industrial age, yet inexorably evident in Time’s harvest of human life. The implicit hope of death’s renewal for the new generation, therefore, was not a grim prospect to ancient peoples in spite of its subsequent medieval association with a fearsome scythe-bearing reaper. The Roman god Saturn was sometimes depicted with scythe or sickle because of his associations with agriculture, generation, and renewal, and was celebrated from December 17 to 23 in the major Roman festival Saturnalia preceding the winter solstice.

In Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) notes that “numerous grains” were raised throughout the empire which “received their names from the countries where they were first produced.” He evaluates grain by weight with the Roman average being approximately three pounds per quart, and agricultural historians calculate average yields to have been about fifteen bushels per acre. An experienced adult harvester could reap about one-half acre, or slightly less, with a sickle in a backbreaking twelve- to fourteen-hour day. This grueling regime was carried out for weeks in the scorching heat and the method remained basically unchanged until the advent of the long-handled scythe in Western Europe during the late Roman era. But the broader blade of the scythe and greater resistance from cutting wider swaths meant scything was generally, but not exclusively, the work of able-bodied adult males. Reaping up to one and one-half acres per day was considered average under favorable circumstances. But use of the more violently swung scythe resulted in the loss of up to ten percent of the precious grain as ripe, brittle stalks are subject to shattering. For these reasons, use of sickles by both men and women for harvesting high value grains like wheat and rye was widespread throughout the world until the twentieth century.

The vital, labor intensive harvesting operations in ancient times required overwhelming participation by the masses. Worker numbers are difficult to determine with precision, but historians estimate that up to one-half of the population engaged directly in the seasonal processes of reaping, binding, and carting, with perhaps forty percent more involved for longer periods in the tertiary operations of threshing, winnowing, and storage. Indeed, provisioning the populace was the preeminent task of any people and a chief preoccupation of their leaders in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and beyond. According to the Elder Pliny, Italian and Boeotian (Ukrainian) wheats rated “first rank,” followed by Sicilian and Alexandrian. “Third rank” wheats included Thebian and Syrian. Pliny also favorably rated Greek wheats from Pontia, Strangia, Draconia, and Selinusium, and noted production in Cyprus, Gaul, Chersonnesus (Crimea), Bactria (Afghanistan), and the Balearic Islands. Cereal grains contributed significantly to the ancient Roman diet which was generally high in plant protein and carbohydrates. The cultural significance of barley and wheat is evident in numerous copper, silver, and gold coins from the ancient world that depict these grains.

The Italian farro grains emmer and spelt were staples of the legionnaires who made nutritious soups from the cracked kernels and likely spread it and other Roman varieties throughout the empire. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene (plates 291-292) of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads. (The English word “harvest” is derived from German Herbst (autumn), which descends from a root shared by Latin carp- [“to gather”] and Greek karpos [“fruit”]. “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English. Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi.).

Trajan’s Column Harvest Scene (c. 110 AD); Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traiansäule (Berlin, 1900)

Trajan’s Column Harvest Scene (c. 110 AD); Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traiansäule (Berlin, 1900)

Roman poet Virgil’s epic the Georgics (c. 30 BC, from a Greek term meaning “farmer” or “agriculturalist”) carries the passionate message that human culture is inextricably bound to the culture of the soil. The influence of Virgil’s 8th century BC Greek predecessors Homer and Hesiod is apparent in the poem. Hesiod’s didactic Works and Days is a masterful poetic admixture of practical farmer’s almanac with ethical maxims and superstitious sayings intended to benefit an indigent brother. The descriptions are rich with depictions of everyday country life that shed light on a vast array of ancient trivia ranging from agrarian diets (“eight-slice wheat loaf” and “barley bread made with milk”) to harvest labors (“sharpen your sickles, …exhausting summertime has come”). As with Homer and Hesiod, like most other substantial works in Greek and Latin, Virgil’s meter is dactylic hexameter but his hymn displays a perfection of image and style unprecedented in ancient literature.

The Georgics’ opening line makes clear one of the work’s principal themes—“What makes the grainfield smile…,” followed by a wondrous narration of forces—both natural and supernatural, that influence annual harvests. Although a hard-working farmer can contend with choking weeds, granary mice, and to some extent drought, Virgil (70-19 BC) also tells of destructive winds and rain, and plundering armies that are beyond any conscientious laborer’s control. The Georgics is no pastoral lauding the life of contemplation. Pastoralism in art, and to greater extent in Virgil’s Eclogues, is generally characterized by idealized natural settings devoid of laborers, or at most showing herders who passively oversee livestock. A rural idyll similarly expresses such experience through a short story or poem. Virgil, however, seeks through his own deep acquaintance with the countryside, crops, and convulsions of Roman Republic politics to relate the heroic virtues of diligence and frugality against the vagaries of private life and public affairs. A native of Italy’s fertile Po valley, Virgil knew first-hand the challenges of Sabine peasant life known by the region’s small landholders (colonui) as well as the realm of responsibly managed and intensively farmed villa estates.

Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (1717/1718);   Oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches;   Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Antoine Watteau, Ceres (1717/1718); Oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Georgics relates an irrepressible conflict of mythic proportions between the peaceful bounty of Saturn’s Golden Age under siege by Jupiter’s menacing minions in a “Jovian Fall” that would revert humanity from pastoral balance to wilderness. The Augustan era’s civil wars resulting from political and military contests between Julius Caesar and Pompey left vast numbers of Romans landless through no fault of their own. The Georgics further represents an earnest call of both homecoming and longing in spite of ruthless forces conspired against such return and oblivious to the primacy of land care. The three great Roman agricultural prose writers—Cato (De Agricultura), Varro (De Re Rustica), and Columella (Res Rustica), treat farming in didactic terms while Virgil’s masterful composition is also a love song for native soil and the ordinary folk who labor upon it.

The four books of the Georgics cover a range of agricultural topics familiar to Roman farmers—field crops (I), trees and vines (II), livestock (III), and beekeeping (IV). Each functions as an essential component in an integrated, holistic approach to soil fertility and production involving cereals, fruits, and livestock. Only zealous attention to details like soil condition, preparation of the threshing floor, and regular tasks like hoeing offer some prospect of a prosperous household and foundation for civil society. The emblems of Virgilian verse—plow and wain and harvest, wonderfully relate agrarian experience as a restorative moral obligation. Prospect of the beneficial labor and contemplation they represent to foster kindness, moderation, and peace of mind in the face of life’s challenges would inspire artists and authors for generations to come.

 

(160-165)

“Now to tell

The sturdy rustics’ weapons, what they are,

Without which, neither can be sown nor reared

The fruits of harvest; first the bent plow’s share

And heavy timber, and slow-lumbering wains

Of the Eleusinian mother, threshing-sleighs….

And drags, and harrows with the crushing weight;   

Then the cheap wicker-ware of Celusius old….”

 

(313-318)

“When Spring the rain-bringer comes rushing down,

Or when the beards of harvest on the plain

Bristle already, and the milky grain

On its green stalk is swelling? Many a time,

When the farmer to his yellow fields

The reaping-hind came bringing, even in act

To lop the brittle barley stems, have I

Seen the all the windy legions clash in war….”