“Farming & Agriculture in the Nile Valley” Victor Blunden (EEG Meeting Talk)

Victor Blunden’s talk at the EEG meeting this Sunday wasn’t called “What the Ordinary Ancient Egyptian Did All Day” but I think that would’ve been a pretty good alternative title 🙂 Early on his talk he pointed out that 90% of the population of Ancient Egypt were peasant farmers, who grew the food that the country survived on. I thought this was particularly good timing for this talk because we’d just been watching Joann Fletcher’s programmes on the BBC about Kha and Merit, where she was referring to them as “ordinary Egyptians” and I felt they were high status even if they weren’t part of the elite. So here was a talk about the real ordinary Egyptians, focussing on their farming methods.

Blunden opened his talk by discussing how the Egyptians divided the year into three seasons – the inundation (ahket, June-Sept), the growing season (peret, Oct-Jan) and the harvest season (shemu, Feb-May). He then went through the three seasons in detail, talking about farming methods and crops that were grown as well as bits and pieces of what that meant for life in a village. And he finished up the talk with a section on animal husbandry. A lot of his slides showed us Egyptian drawings/reliefs showing farming scenes – but a lot of these were introduced by him telling us how this was an idealised representation. He didn’t always tell us where the more accurate information came from, but other things were illustrated with photos of the actual implements used or modern (1960s & earlier) equivalents of these farming practices (from pre-Aswan High Dam times).

One of the things that particularly stuck in my mind from the section on the inundation season was when he told us that one of the reasons that the ibis is associated with the god of wisdom & learning (Thoth) is because it appears to have secret knowledge of the inundation. About two weeks before the Nile floods great flocks of ibis fly into Egypt and land by the banks of the river as part of their seasonal migration. So to the Egyptians it looked like the birds knew the flood waters were on their way – so they must be wise to be able to predict it. During the inundation the farmlands were flooded which did the dual duty of saturating the land with water (important for being able to plough it, as well as for plant growth) and fertilising the land with silt and organic matter from further up river. During the inundation it obviously wasn’t possible to work on the fields – so this provided the Egyptian state with a supply of labour for building projects such as the pyramids. Blunden made this sound a bit like a happy fun holiday camp, but I rather suspect that wasn’t the case – it must’ve been back-breaking & dangerous work, in a different way to farming. However, they did get fed and housed during the work – and better fed than at home – so it wasn’t a bad thing for the villagers. Blunden also pointed out that the village would get filled with creepy-crawlies during this season – houses were built on slightly higher ground, so animals & insects escaping the flood-waters would crawl up into the houses. That was something I hadn’t really thought through before.

During the growing season the farmers would plough the land, sow the seeds then tend the plants as they grew. But the first thing that would happen is that the landowner’s officials would come and make sure all the boundary stones were in the right places and hadn’t been “moved by the floods”. Ploughs were pulled by oxen, if they had animals available, otherwise they were pulled by human power. After ploughing the seed was trampled in by running a herd of goats across the fields (if no goats, then the seed was sown in front of the plough which was used more like a harrow in that case). Blunden talked about how irrigation technology changed over the millennia – in the Old Kingdom a second harvest would have to be watered by hand, but by Ptolemaic times there were animal power water-wheels so it was much easier to get water out of the Nile & onto the fields. The growing season was also the time when the tax collectors came to figure out what their share of the crop would be – to make it harder for the farmer to hide how much grain he’d grown.

The time to start harvesting the crop was determined by an official – Blunden compared this to the Del Monte adverts from ages ago (“The man from Del Monte says “yes!””). The men then harvested the crop together – a long line of them stepping forward in time with each other cutting the ears of barley (or pulling up the flax). Blunden said they would sing songs to keep themselves in step, I think he said that one of these songs is preserved on a tomb wall (but I may be misremembering this). Once gathered the grain would be trampled by animals to break up the husk. Then winnowed to get the grain kernels out, and sieved to remove dirt and the inevitable by-products of trampling it with animals. And then as much as eight tenths of it would be taken off to the landowner’s storehouses (generally the landowners were the temples or the Pharaoh himself). The grain was then the currency of the country – other workers like craftsmen (like Kha & Merit) would be paid with grain rations. And it was also a store in case of disaster. Blunden told us that the grain stores of the Ramesseum could hold enough grain to feed the population of Thebes and surrounding villages for 18 months. So if the harvest failed, the population could survive until the next harvest was in.

The ancient Egyptians kept many different animals as livestock, and experimented with some quite strange ones. The most startling of these was an attempt (in New Kingdom times I think) to domesticate the hyena – which lasted about 150 years before being abandoned again. There were also lots of the more standard farm animals – cattle from early on, and goats but sheep weren’t present in large numbers until Ptolemaic times. They also kept, and ate, pigs – which surprised me, I’m not sure why. This wasn’t a rare or small scale thing, there are references in people’s tombs to the size of pig herds that they owned, for instance one man owned a herd of 4000 animals. In terms of birds the Egyptians mostly kept geese, or ducks, not chickens. There is a record in one of the Pharaoh’s annals (I forget which one, a Tutmosis I think) of him having been given a chicken as a present from some other kingdom and being astonished at it laying an egg every day. I hadn’t ever realised that this is part of why the chicken edged out the rest of the bird species as the one to keep. The birds and animals that the Egyptians kept were often force-fed to be fattened up for the table, and Blunden showed us several reliefs depicting the animal keepers with their hands down the animal’s throat. And there was also a relief of an Ancient Egyptian vet – and there are records about what to do about breech births in cattle and other problems of that sort. As well as the domesticated animals the Egyptians hunted & fished to supplement their diets. The reliefs in tombs like that of Nebamun show how the gentry did this (and are also symbolic in intent) but there are also reliefs from other tombs (Old Kingdom ones in particular) showing the working people gathering great big nets full of fish for instance.

And Blunden finished the talk with a brief description of wine & beer production in Ancient Egypt – which might’ve been better placed with the rest of the crop growing discussion, but clearly he wanted to set up his closing joke that “and now he needed a drink, so he’d finish here”. It was a good talk, full of humour & of the sorts of details that make such a long ago time sound more familiar. I was particularly reminded of medieval farming practices (boundary stones on fields, land owners & farmers not being the same people etc).