Egyptian Society: The Peasant-Farmer
By Marie Parsons
People in ancient prehistoric Egypt followed the pattern of hunter-gatherer to cattle-raiser/farmer, followed similarly by peoples all over the world then as well as now. When we today think of ancient Egypt and its glories, we usually think of the treasures and monuments of kings, the wealth and grandeur of noble tombs, and the texts left by scribes. But it was the farmer and laborer, the "peasants" of the time, who formed the backbone of the Egyptian way of life.
Egypt has always been an agricultural country. Husbandry has been the foundation of its economy, the welfare and prosperity being at all times depending on the produce of the soil. The peasants were the backbone of the nation, yet they left us hardly any record of their own lives. This is not surprising since they were non-literate. They left no written accounts of the essential aspects of their lives, aspirations, hopes and what they thought of their lot compared to the wealthier classes around them.
The evidence that we do have that allows a picture of the life of the farmer comes to us from the paintings on the tomb walls of wealthier landowners and bureaucrats, depicting life in their households and estates, texts and records, especially those from the Ptolemaic period written in Demotic script, and archaeological evidence such as seed baskets, hoes, plows, sickles and winnowing scoops, related household utensils such as ropes, baskets, and sieves, as well as small-scale wooden models of houses and gardens and even people working.
It was believed that the god Osiris was the first farmer, the king who taught the people farming techniques and the domestication of animals. His wife the goddess Isis taught the people how to make beer and bread. With Osiris for their role-model and deity, the people offered back the products of the land to the gods.
The first farmers combined the exploitation of pockets of wild grains, with the hunting and domestication of native species of sheep, goats and cattle. The wadis, fertile areas, throughout Egypt, provided grazing as well as cover for game such as antelope, gazelle, ostrich and hare. Fish filled the Nile River and ducks, geese and other birds thronged the marshes and reeds.
Not only was grain vital to feed the people, but, since the Egyptians at that time had no form of currency, grain was part of a barter economy. That is, prices of basic commodities were expressed in terms of measures of grain.
Bread and beer were the chief components of the Egyptians daily diet, eventually even being depicted as the first offering in the funerary offering formula, or hetep di nisu. Though there are several words in the ancient Egyptian language for grain, one term in particular graphically describes the significance of grain in the life of the people. This word was ankhet, describing corn as "that which gives life."
Other names of important grains which were cultivated are found on a stele listing offerings. There are two varieties of barley, called it shema and it mehi, emmer, called bedet, wheat, called sut, and another grain called in Egyptian besha.
The earliest evidence for the cultivation of grain crops in the Nile Valley comes from the Predynastic period, in the region known as the Faiyum. This oasis north-west of modern Cairo is fed by a branch of the Nile river. Its lake was known as Mer Wer or Great Lake, hence its Hellenized name of Moeris. During the 12th Dynasty, kings built pyramids and summer palaces in this region. Later on during the Ptolemaic period, the greatest increases in both available agricultural land and population occurred in the region, and in the Roman period, the Faiyum was one of the principal grain producing areas of its Empire.
Emmer wheat, barley and flax, from whence linen was made and linseed oil was derived, were the first grains cultivated, and continued to be the most important crops through dynastic history. Both emmer and barley were used for bread as well as for beer. Early evidence for spinning and weaving of linen comes from the Faiyum in the form of a scrap of woven fabric c 5000 BCE. The oil was used for lighting and in polishing and preserving wood.
Farming was so important and central to life that the months of the Egyptian year were named after the cycles of the growing and harvesting: Akhet was the month of Inundation, Peret, the month of Emergence, when the waters began to recede, and thus was the season of planting and tilling; and Shemu, the third month, was the month of Dryness, moving to the years end when the cycle would begin again. Once the land had dried out sufficiently, it had to be turned by use of a mattock or hoe. Perhaps the king figure on the Scorpion Macehead was engaged in this activity lending it more of a ritual significance.
Herodotus and Diodorus wrote describing an almost Eden-like land where farmers had but to drop seed and their crops would spring up with barely any toil. "The majority merely scatter their seed, turn in their herds and flocks upon the fields, and use them to trample down the seed, and after four or five months the peasants return and harvest the crop." Diodorus came from a land where the soil was rocky and harvests meager, so Egypts valley must have truly seemed like a blissful field. The Egyptians gave praises to Hapy, deity of the Nile, when the Inundation was just right, not to little and not too much, but this practical people knew that their crops would not grow by themselves. Hard work was needed.
From birth until death, peasants were tied to the land they toiled upon, whoever its owner was. This land could be administered by the state, belong to one of the royal cult or temple complexes, or form part of a tomb endowment. Some peasant-farmers may have even been attached to private estates. They were not free to leave or offer their work elsewhere, even if the land changed hands. The king could settle anyone anywhere he wanted, however. Land tenure changed from time to time, following political currents, but it is unlikely that such changes altered either the quality of the peasants lives or the nature and manner of their labors to any significant extent.
The farmers used irrigation methods. Catch-basins were created by building small dikes, and from the late Old Kingdom onwards, canals channeled the flood waters. Fields would be irrigated artificially by opening the dikes. Canals, dikes and water sluices that had gotten clogged with mud, damaged or even washed away by the floodwaters had to be cleaned, repaired, or replaced. And this had to be done quickly too, before the land dried out. Then the farmers had to hoe and plow, and sow their seed, and this was all done best when the ground was muddy and soft. Gardeners would also carry water in pails suspended to a yoke they carried over their shoulders.
When the shaduf was introduced in the New Kingdom it helped irrigate higher-lying land. The shaduf increased the quantity of the grain harvest and the area of land available for crop growing. It apparently originated in Mesopotamia. It consisted of a long pole which was ether balanced on an upright such as a brick pillar or forked wooden post, or suspended from a timber framework, and pivoted to swing from side to side and up and down. At one end of the pole hung a bucket and at the other end hung a counterweight, usually of mud and stones. The farmers worker would pull down the pole to fill the bucket with water, then allow the counterweight to raise it up to a level where it may be emptied into a channel, gulley or cistern at the edge of the field.
The provisioning of water for the fields and the maintenance of the irrigation works were communal responsibilities, but local landowners, especially provincial nobles, were more immediately involved than was the central royal government.
Seed corn was provided from the harvest of the previous year. Since grain was so valuable, seed corn was carefully regulated, all withdrawals from the granaries carefully recorded by scribes. The amount allowed to any farmer would depend on the area of land he wished to plant and some calculations were needed to assess what was required. If previous harvests had been poor, less seed corn was available, so rationing had to be put into effect. The First Intermediate period may have been one such time. Farmers looked to local rulers rather than to the King for help in sustaining their agricultural base.
Larger areas were worked with a plough of very primitive design, being no more than a sharpened, fire-hardened stick, which was pressed into the earth by the ploughman and dragged through the ground by a pair of oxen. This somewhat inefficient action carved a series of grooves in the soil. Men with hoes then followed the plough and broke up the clods of earth to prepare the field for the sowing.
The seed was scattered by hand from a basket slung on the sowers shoulder. A flock of sheep, goats or even pigs were then driven on to the field to tread in the seed. Fields were probably enclosed with stake or picket fences, or with simple barriers of thorny brushwood, to deter animals from trampling or eating the crop. The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant from the Middle Kingdom described how a public path ran along the edge of a field between the crop and a waterway.
Children would be responsible for scaring away sparrows and pigeons from the field, and some weeding would be necessary. Cornflowers, poppies and mayweeds were all familiar garland flowers.
The tax assessors would come first teams of surveyors to inspect the ripening crops. They measured the fields to calculate the area under cultivation, which would be compared to records of previous years. Samples of the grain would be tested and the receipts from the issue of that seasons seed to judge the quality of the crop. An estimate would then be made of the expected yield, and the tax would be about 20% of the harvest.
At harvest time the corn was cut with wooden sickles set with flint blades. The corn was cut just below the ear, leaving the straw standing to be collected separately. Gleaning was done by children. Pipers often piped melodies to help the threshers keep a rhythm in their strokes.
The cut grain was collected in large baskets and transported to the threshing floor and deposited in heaps. Threshing was the process of freeing grain from the husks, done by the hooves of cattle or donkeys, which were driven around the floor, trampling the ears to squeeze the seeds out of their husks. Winnowers tossed the threshed grain into the air from wooden or basketwork scoops, so that the chaff would be blown away.
The separated grain was measured into baskets or sacks, which were counted and recorded by scribes before being stored in the granaries. Grain was stored in brick-lined pits, perhaps with a replaceable lining of reed matting and a thatched or animal-hide roof. Grain silos were built in the farmyards of larger estates, often a beehive-shaped structure of mudbrick, plastered and possibly lime-washed.
Reliefs that depict the agricultural processes are captioned with familiar dialogues: An overseer says to his harvesting workers, "I am telling you men, the barley is ripe, ad he who reaps well will get it." A woman winnowing is told by a farmhand, "Hurry up!" while her companion is rebuked, "Put your hand in this barley, it is still full of chaff."
The scribes and granary officials could calculate the capacity of a granary and hence the value of the grain stored within it, and the comparative values of bread and beer based on the cost of their ingredients. There was summary punishment, depicted on wall paintings, for any farmer who was late in paying his dues or who could not pay at all.
Tax-collectors have been depicted on paintings and reliefs as beating a farmer who can not pay. Whether or not this was a norm, it was obviously experienced. A governor named Amenemhet pointed out in his tomb autobiography that there was "no widow whom I oppressed, no peasant whom I repulsedno one starved in my timeno one was hungry in my provincethen came great Niles, bringers of barley and emmerbut I did not exact the arrears of the harvest tax."
A bundle of papyri found in the 11th Dynasty tomb of Meseh at Thebes included letters and accounts from a man named Heqanakht. This landowner kept a careful watch over the management of his agricultural estates, even when away from home. He gave instructions as to what crops to plant and what land to rent.
Vegetable growing was largely the responsibility of individual householders. Plots may have been allocated to workers on the larger estates as part of their wages, so they could supplement their income by bartering surplus on the marketplace. Pulses would have formed a significant part of the vegetable crop, since peas, beans and lentils were valuable sources of protein. Onions, lettuces and cucumbers were also grown, and comprised parts of funerary and temple offerings shown on wall paintings.
Some of the foodstuffs produced by the farmers were used to satisfy their own needs. Much of the produce however was intended for the many temples and tomb-chapels serving the cult of the dead.
Most farmers derived their income from a mixture of crop-growing and animal husbandry. The richest were the cattle-owners. Herds were the subject of a biannual census, portrayed in the tomb paintings of Nebamun in Thebes and in models from the tomb of Meketra. Cattle-breeding was the height of animal husbandry in Egypt and beef the most prestigious meat. Sheep and goats were more accessible meat-sources for less affluent households, goats being more adaptable to the available scrub grazing, and were easier to milk than cows.
Workers employed in non-agricultural jobs found pig-breeding a lucrative industry. Pigs formed part of the meat diet, as attested by the discoveries of pig bones within human settlements.
Cattle and goats were also kept for their hides, and sheep for their wool. Cow-skin was used to make the seats of chairs. Oxen were important as draught animals.
There were not always enough workers on the land to do the harvesting and the rest. Gangs of mobile laborers were often gathered via the corvee. The corvee was a system of forced, unpaid state service, exacted of the peasants for specific tasks such as construction and maintenance of roads, irrigation canals, dikes ad sluices, the erection of large buildings, temples, pyramids, army duty, and mining or stoneworking in the quarries.
The only peasants exempt from corvee duty were those in the service of certain temples that by royal decree had been granted special exemption. Beginning with King Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty, such decrees were granted to various temples such as that of Amun, the temples at Abydos.
Since the harvest first began in the south, in Upper Egypt, the gangs would move north as each estate was done. Evidence for the existence of such gangs moving comes from a decree of King Seti I declaring his staff exempt. The decree was issued in his fourth regnal year, first day of the first month of the season of Peret, c 1300 BCE. His decree concerned, "the temple of millions of years of the king of Egypt MenMaatRa, whose heart is satisfied in Abydos." This was possibly a reference to a subsidiary estate of his great temple of Osiris. The decree safeguarded and protected all the people of that estate, consecrating the temple and ensuring its property and income. Everyone would perform the temple functions exclusively and without any interference. As examples, the decree mentions that people were not to be seized "as captured, as transferred from one district to another, as service workmen, as forced labor for ploughing, or as forced labor for reaping."
- Everyday Life in Egypt by Pierre Montet
- In the Shadow of the Pyramids by Jaromir Malek
- Ancient Egypt: Life in the Old Kingdom by Jill Kamil
- The Egyptians ed by Sergio Donadoni, "Peasants" by Ricardo A. Caminos
- The Ancient Egyptian Sed-Festival and Exemption from Corvee by Jose M Galan, JNES Vol 59
- People of the Pharaohs by Hilary Wilson
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.