This is about as quick of a general summary of ancient farming practices as you'll ever see. There are books upon books written on the topic, and today's posting is mostly a whet-your-whistle for interest's sake. But I feel the subject is a relevant one, for we in our modern day tend to forget the importance of what our ancestors did so we could have what we do have here in the 21st century. We tend to forget that in our eyes and minds life was so much tougher in those days of old, especially the further one travels back in time.
Do you think you could live "back then"?
It would be extremely difficult for most modern persons to attempt to survive in the past, which affirms a quote I take to heart:
People today are not smarter than people of the past - we just live in a different time.
This means: if you were plopped down 150 years ago or 250 years ago or even before then, could you survive? Could you start a fire without matches? Do you know how to cook on a wood or coal stove or in a hearth? Do you know the types of wood used for various cooking methods? Do you know how to hunt and then process & prepare your kill for eating? Do you know how to make clothing from wool yet to be shorn from a sheep or process the flax plant into linen? Do you know which plants are used for what? Do you know how to truly care for farm animals?
These are just questions and thoughts off the top of my head that I know by far the greater majority of folk cannot answer "yes" to. Just like if those from the past were plopped down in our modern day would be just as lost: they would have no idea how to work our modern stove or microwave, turn on a light, would they know how to even open a car door, much less start or drive one, work a phone - cell or otherwise - would they know that you would have to turn on the knob at the kitchen sink for water to pour out of the faucet...?
Why, those who are used to their own environment, of course!
In other words: People today are not smarter than people of the past - we just live in a different time.
And then beyond my ancient farming post, continue reading, for there are photos and commentary on the 18th century gardening that my wife Patty and I did at the cabin located at Waterloo Farm.
Back in February 2023 I wrote about the pretty amazing collection of Time-Life books on my shelves (click HERE). I've been spending these recent winter and spring months going through them, beginning with the earliest chapters of recorded history, and I'm finding that these books are even better than I originally thought. I have been happily surprised that much of the text centers on early farming.
And how could they not?
|And here's the quote for all to see at Greenfield Village.|
Ed Davis took this picture for me~
The connection between those ancient farming days through the centuries up until today is a strong one, and so therefore I'd like to begin today's post with a favorite quote about ancient life:
“Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
(1782 - 1852)
I've always liked this quote but had never really given it deep thought. I mean, yes, I've read it and loved it, for it does have meaning, but until somewhat recently, I never fully realized its truth and deeper meaning until I began researching and studying world history (thanks to the World History class in which I am a parapro).
And these studies have helped me to understand even more so that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So what I present for you here is a basic covering of this ancient time and farming, taken mostly directly out of my books:
The Fertile Crescent, often referred to as “the cradle of civilization,” is the crescent-shaped region in Western Asia and North Africa that spans the modern-day countries of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and, for some scholars, Egypt. The Fertile Crescent was the region where the first settled agricultural communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean basin are thought to have originated, inadvertently creating civilization as we know it.
Twelve thousand years ago, as the frozen ice age shrank back to the north and south poles, the earth again came to life. Vegetation spread, animals abounded, and humans - mostly hunter-gatherers - multiplied. But the hunter-gatherer way of life was more suitable for small groups of people. As the groups grew in size, becoming too large to sustain, members broke off to discover new hunting territory, usually within the same region; with the earth's new fruitfulness, humanity, too, was on the increase. On the upper ridges of the Fertile Crescent, wild goats and ibexes roamed favorably, while in the lower slopes would find sheep and gazelles grazing alongside of wild cattle and asses. And on the hillsides, open woodland flourished with oak, juniper, hawthorn, pistachio, and wild pear trees.
More important, however, in the areas favored by the sun and seasonal rains, vast fields of wild cereal-grasses covered the ground, in some places spreading over thousands of acres.
Millet was a cereal widely used in the ancient world.
Photo by Claus Rebler, Flickr, Creative Commons
It was an abundance too great to pass by, and there was little chance this bounty would diminish, for the wild cereals grew, and grew very productively, scattering their seeds to the wind, landing in the soil, pushing themselves into the dirt with the help of natural elements as wind and rain, germinating and growing the next season. From what I understand, people would snatch the tops (known as an "ear") off the grain-bearing tip part of the stem of a cereal plant, such as wheat or maize (corn) and eat it plain. Over time, people would learn how to process the eventual yield, by way of turning it into flour for breads (for one example), making it tastier for consumption. First, the seeds were threshed with sticks to remove the rough outer casings; then it would be tossed in the air to allow the light chaff to blow away, leaving only the wanted kernels. Sifting and grinding between stones would follow in preparation for cooking. This process was also done in some form or another by our more recent ancestors of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Amid this flurry of activity, some of the seeds would inevitably be spilled and swept onto the communal garbage dump where they thrived unattended. Eventually the accidents of replanting grew in numbers, located not out in the fields of the open countryside, but on the outskirts of the settlement itself, which made it convenient for gathering and easier to protect from scavengers. Almost unconsciously, the first steps had been taken toward crop cultivation. Soon people began storing seeds with intent and then sowing them the following season. It was in this manner that settlements grew larger much quicker. Villagers soon added to their diet migratory ducks, turkey, and other forms of meats.
The fields of grain spread across the once desolate flatlands. Groves of date palms swayed in the wind, offering fruit and shade. With all of this, the one-time nomads remained mostly in one spot; they had what they needed without moving about. They were no longer the nomads of their ancestors.
Plowing was initially a stick scraped along the ground. Advances in the design of the plow boosted productivity, and by 3000 BC, the original wooden plow, barely strong enough to scratch the ground without bending or breaking, had given way to a much sturdier bronze blade.
As these civilizations grew, changes occurred that their predecessors could have never imagined.
So it is as a whole that anthropologists believe crop and livestock cultivation actually began around 7000 B.C. If that's the case, agriculture has been feeding the world (and worrying farmers) for about 9,000 years.
Then there is the textile industry.
We know that wool from sheep, feathers from geese and ducks, and animal skins themselves have kept humans warm and comfortable for thousands of years, in some form or another - as wearables or coverings. We don't necessarily know when this all began, but we do know it was early in the history of mankind. Of course, this was all perfected over a long length of time. The spinning wheel is modern compared to the length of time humanity has been wearing clothing. Which of course means that prior to the spinning wheel's invention in about A.D. 1000, every length of thread or yarn on earth was spun with a simple spindle and a pair of human hands. Spindle whorls (small wheels or pulleys in a spinning machine, spindle, or a spinning wheel), which date back to 8,000 B.C., have been found in recent Middle Eastern excavations. Though all signs point to the spinning wheel being invented in China about 1000 AD, the earliest drawing of a spinning wheel that we have is from about 1035 AD. Spinning wheels later spread from China to Iran, from Iran to India, and eventually to Europe.
Pictured here are two spindles and a netting needle
from ancient Egyptian finds.
This is the tool that wove history!
(click to enlarge)
The Drop spindle has been used to spin fiber, from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years. The first Spindles used were essentially a straight stick approximately eight to twelve inches long on which the yarn is wound after twisting.
We know Sumerians also used flax. I didn't say they necessarily invented the flax process, for flax is one of the earliest plants known to be used for producing textiles and actually may have been around the region for thousands of years before. But it was by the seventh millennium B.C., farmers in the fertile crescent cultivated flax, not only for its linseed oil but for its fiber.
As you may have seen from a few previous postings here on Passion for the Past, producing cloth from vegetable matter was a tedious process. First the flax stems had to be soaked, then vigorously pounded to release the fibers. Next the fibers were "spun" - either by rubbing them on the thigh, or by twisting them on a free-hanging spindle (drop spindle) - before being woven on a horizontal loom that was staked out on the ground. We must remember that the earliest looms date from the 5th millennium B.C., so before that time people were doing the process by hand. The finished product, however, was well worth the trouble.
And who wouldn't want a new linen shirt?!
|Alulu beer receipt – This records a purchase of |
“best” beer from a brewer, circa 2050 BC from
the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq.
The first solid proof of beer production also comes from the period of the Sumerians from Sumer, emerging during the early Bronze Ages between six thousand and five thousand B.C. - perhaps earlier.
During an archeological excavation in Mesopotamia, a tablet was discovered that showed villagers drinking a beverage from a bowl with straws. And archeologists also found an ode to Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.
The discovery of fermentation was probably a "happy accident" in the processing of barley grains where the secret of malting may have been revealed (the process of malting involves three main steps. The first is soaking the barley - also known as steeping - to awaken the dormant grain. Next, the grain is allowed to germinate and sprout. Finally, heating or kilning the barley produces its final color and flavor.). The liquid it produced must have been quite the "potion" of, ahem, happiness for the villagers.
Now re-read what I wrote at the top of this post:
“Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
It all comes together now, doesn't it?
Farming produced food. But it also produced drink, as in beer, as well as vegetation for clothing!
The following were taken from the Anglo-Saxon calendar from about 1000 A.D. My interest in it is that it shows daily life per month from the first millennium of the A.D. period ("Anno Domini" or Common Era, as many use today to denote the period. I prefer using A.D.).
The Anglo-Saxons were some of the first to use the wheeled plow shown here. This could turn heavy soils, which had not been previously plowable. The small oxen are probably depicted accurately; cattle were far smaller than those of today.
Some say the people in this image suggest that vines are being pruned using the broad-bladed tool called a serp, while others suggest that the workers are coppicing trees for firewood.
The workers here are breaking ground, digging, hoeing, and sowing for the coming season.
Sheep were important for the meat (mutton), the fleece, and the milk. Cows at this time were kept mainly to breed oxen, which were good work animals. Milk mainly came from sheep and goats.
July was hay month; hay was needed to feed the animals through the winter.
The people here are threshing, winnowing, and carrying away the grain for storage.
The importance of farming in daily life of those who lived a thousand and more years ago cannot be overstated.
The founders of civilization indeed!
I've often wondered: had I actually been living as a farmer back in 1773, and being the age I am now (retirement age - you guess what that is!), would I had still been active in the garden and in the fields? My grandpa, born in 1895, was a farmer - he was an extremely strong man - and he maintained large gardens (yes, plural) - some which were larger than our pretty big Waterloo patch until the day he died at age 76. He was able to get on his hands and knees, digging and planting with his hands. He was able to till the soil on his own with a shovel and rake. And he weeded daily.
Next we have a sort of "part 2" of the posting immediately previous to this one (click HERE if that will help), for you will see us at the frontier cabin doing spring chores, including planting. Unfortunately, we don't really live at the cabin and therefore are not there daily to ensure all the work that needs doing gets done! So here we are a week later, my wife Patty & I, back at the Waterloo cabin, completing what was not able to get completed the previous week!
This posting fits in with ancient farming, for pretty much the same tools and techniques are being utilized.
Back to 1773 we go - - - - - - - - - - - - -
|My hay rake (which I also use in the garden) and my regular |
wood rake, which does a very good job in clearing & cleaning
up the garden bed.
|Here's Patty and I doing a sort of imitation of American Gothic.|
Yes, we plan to dress in our period clothing anytime we go out to work in this garden.
For the first time, I am wearing and working in my new farmer's linen work smock
I purchased from Townsends.
But, to me it just keeps the whole thing period authentic.
Yes, I suppose I am a bit off center! lol
|Patty & Charlotte did a fine job planting the week before.|
But there was a couple patches they were not able to get to.
|I did prepare about a third of the garden patch in total, including |
raking and hoeing, and then I did some sowing (beans!) as I continued
getting rid of hiding clumps of rooted grass and weeds as I dropped
the seeds into the holes.
Not bad for being in pain, eh?
|When Patty and I first began to date, way back in 1982, we spoke on gardening, |
on farming, on how people lived in the old days, and how we would had loved to live
"back then." Well, in a way, this is that dream come true - with
(hopefully) more to come.
|Meanwhile, Patty sowed a variety of items, adding to what was |
already planted there the week before.
|Besides the beans, we have beets, onions, squash, beans, |
cucumbers, turnips, carrots, and even a few pumpkins.
|Patty using the replicated 18th century watering jug for watering the seeds. They've |
been using this watering jug for years at the Daggett House at Greenfield Village.
I then saw one very similar to what I have here being used on one of the British-made
farm documentaries - either Tudor Farm or Tales From the Green Valley (1620) farm.
So...I had to have one as well!God willing, we shall have a fine harvest in 70 to 90 or so days.
And there are a few that will be ready come fall.
|You'll note my "broken in" smock.|
Kneeling in the dirt to sow.
My wife's apron, which was also worn, in part, to keep her skirt clean,
has seen cleaner days as well.
Patty & I plan to try to come out two to three times a month on our own to
weed and to make sure all is well. My wife has been getting into gardening
big time this year and can't seem to get enough.
She certainly does have a green thumb!
|Because of my ache-r (back) I did go inside the cabin for |
a short while to get off my feet to let the nerves in my back relax.
He also reaped the harvest, and as his grandson, so did I.
When I was a school custodian back in the day, I did a lot of moving, lifting, shifting, carrying, and all other custodial matters, sometimes on a daily basis! I'm sure that was where the root of my back issues began. Yes, I go to physical therapy. Yes, I've been to back doctors (no thanks - no surgery for me!). I've even gone to chiropractors (it's so hard to find a good and trusting one). And, yes, I do the exercises given to me. I'm managing the best I can.
As far as gardening goes, not much has changed from those B.C. and early A.D. eras to the 1770s. Oh, things had certainly improved, but the basics were still the same. However, something that I, as an 18th century farmer/planter should look into: the seed drill invented by none other than Jethro Tull! Though it wasn't until the late 18th century and into the 19th century that it's popularity grew, it was Jethro Tull, an English agriculturalist, who is credited with inventing the first practical seed drill back in 1701, allowing farmers to plant their crop much easier, more uniform, and in tighter rows.
So Mr. Tull did more than sit on a park bench, eh? lol
It wasn't until the later part of the 19th century, after the industrial revolution showed its might, that the real noticeable changes in farming came about. For instance, the reaper: for several centuries, small grains were harvested by hand. But with improvements on the reaper it increased food production as well as made harvesting easier. Farmers could now process more wheat much quicker and with less labor force.
That was then---this is now~
Me in my 1860s clothing with my flail / hand thresher.
I have no idea of the age of the threshing machine
behind me...and neither did the guy
who was running it. Definitely new.
But my hand-thresher - yeah...that's the old way.
Thresher. At one time, in order to remove kernels from the straw, grain had to be spread out on a threshing floor where it was beaten by hand. In some cases, animals trampled on the grain to separate it. The invention of the threshing machine made this process much easier.
However, not everyone enjoyed its benefits, for some thought of the threshing machine as "a lazy man's way to thresh. Haste makes waste, but a lazy man'd rather get his work done fast than do it himself. That machine chews up the straw till it's not fit to feed stock, and it scatters grain around and wastes it. All's it saves is time, and what good is time with nothing to do?"
(From Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Farmer Boy)
Steam Engine. The introduction of steam engines improved productivity and technology greatly.
Combine. Reaping, threshing, winnowing – combining all three operations into one led to the invention of the combine harvester, simply known as the combine. Considered one of the most important inventions in agriculture, the combine significantly reduced manpower and sped up the harvesting process.
Tractor. The general-purpose tractor proved to be an excellent replacement for the horse in plowing, soil preparation, planting, and cultivating tasks for a wide variety of field crops. In addition, the tractor was fully capable of providing power for mowing hay and for harvesting of wheat and other small grains.
Hydraulics - moving water through pipes and channels, especially as a source of mechanical force or control.. Hydraulic systems made agricultural production faster and more efficient, while reducing labor costs.
|Your farming family plus the preacher.|
Farming has changed far more over the last 150 to 175 years than since the beginning of agriculture revolution around 10,000 to 12,000 years before. But it's still the same job...only there's machines doing it now.
As far as what our colonial group - Citizens of the American Colonies - are doing: we are making as gallant an attempt to show daily life (and to some extent, live the life) in the same manner as was done 250 years ago. We work. We get dirty. No fancy silks or fear of stains for us, for we are wearing work clothing. That's why I also purchased a linen work smock - to help keep my clothing in better condition, just as a farmer would have done back in the 18th century. But that's why I wear work clothes when I head out to the cabin, with no fear of getting them dirty. And that's why I purchased work clothes for my wife. In fact, all of us wear our work clothes when we are at the cabin.
A real quick aside here:
I purchased the clothing you see my wife in (blue skirt) during the covid break, and she was, like, "okay" - with no excitement in her tone, wondering why I spent the money in this manner, for she was finding herself less and less enchanted with living history. But since we've gotten into this whole period gardening/farming thing, she has thoroughly enjoyed it and has thanked me more than once for purchasing the garments for her.
I love it!
I also love that they are historically accurate! Thank you Samson Historical!
We're often asked where we get our historic clothing from, and, though many of our garments are made by those who can sew or those who can afford a seamstress or tailor, there are a few sutlers where we can purchase what's known as "off-the-rack" clothes. There are two in particular used most often from our members (including my wife's clothes and my smock), and they would be Samson Historical and Townsends, both are highly recommended for purchasing your ready-made items. Plus both have hats, shoes, and "home" accessories, including plates, bowls, silverware, lighting accessories, and so on.
Now, if you prefer to sew your own attire, check out Wm. Booth Draper, as well as Smoke & Fire.
It is our plan, Patty & I, to head out to the cabin and the garden two to three times per month, mostly for weeding. We live quite the distance away and it is a 90 minute drive one way, so we are unable to get out much more than that. If things work right, we should have a decent summer harvest in late July or early August - perhaps in time for Lammas Day!
Until next time, see you in time!
To read more about farming and tools, click HERE
To read more about A Year on a Colonial Farm, click HERE
To read more about our own living history 19th century harvest, click HERE
To read more about our own living history 18th century harvest, click HERE
To read more about the Time-Life books I mentioned, click HERE
Besides the Time-Life books I mentioned (click HERE), I used pieces of other sources for this post:
Some information on linen came from HERE
Some information on linen came from HERE
And more ancient spinning info came directly from HERE
Some beer info came from HERE
Period Clothing and accessories:
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