Life in Ancient Egypt

Natural World: Agriculture

HoeAgriculture in ancient Egypt required only a few basic tools: plows, hoes, sickles, baskets, forks, and scoops. Hoes, such as this one, were used in breaking dirt clods formed during plowing and for tending the growing crops. The ancient Egyptians also used hoes to move dirt during building or brick making. This hoe is made from two pieces, a handle and a blade, that were fitted together and then bound with a rope. The binding of modern rope that now holds both parts together is based on original attachments known from other hoes. The object does not show signs of heavy use. Its excavation at Deir el-Bahri and its lack of wear patterns suggest that this hoe was used to mix water and dirt for mud brick.

Egyptologists do not know much about farmers' lives beyond their daily tasks in the fields. As members of the lower class, full-time farmers were illiterate and, therefore, did not have the education or income to leave behind their personal histories. Farmers endured a hard but secure life, since serious deprivation appears to have been an uncommon circumstance. All farming was done by hand with the occasional use of cattle to pull plows. On small private farms, most family members were involved in agricultural activities; women are seen in tomb paintings gleaning the fields during harvest. A large number of farmers, however, worked on estates owned by others and were paid in food and clothing. Some farmers rented land from wealthier people, giving a portion of the harvest in payment to the landowner.

It appears likely that most of Egypt's adult population spent some time farming. Although there were full-time farmers, during and immediately following inundation most men were drafted through corvée (forced labor by the government as taxation) to increase the personnel available for dredging irrigation canals, surveying land boundaries, and preparing the ground for planting. Avoidance of corvée carried stiff penalties for the individual and sometimes his family. Noblemen and scribes, the literate upper class, were the only people consistently excluded from the corvée. Most noblemen were automatically involved in the agricultural system, however, because they owned farms and supervised royal or temple agricultural land.

Dynasty XIX-XX (ca. 1295-1070 B.C.)
Deir el-Bahri
Handle: length 38.8 cm; width 5 cm
ACC. 2940-6
Blade: length 34.5 cm; width 14.5 cm
ACC. 2940-6a

Excerpted from Reflections of Greatness: Ancient Egypt at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Diana Craig Patch.
© 1990 The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

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