By John Romer
Beside the Pale Lake
Living in the Faiyum,5000–4000 BC
It was wetter then than it is now. Though the monsoons were slowly failing, the plains were grass-green and scented with flowering shrubs whilst the valleys held exotic trees, such as still grow in central Africa. To the east of the Saharan plateau, small groups of hunters camped occasionally inside the sheltered wadis that ran down into the Nile Valley and they took fish from the river, hare, gazelle and wild cattle from the fringes of the plain above, and gathered seeds and tubers from the rushy swamps that lay along the river’s edge. In the slow flow of prehistory, the changes that were transforming the Saharan plains into a hot sand sea would have been imperceptible, even to hunters living off the land. Then suddenly, some seven thousand years ago, a new way of living was introduced into this gentle Eden.
For modern archaeologists, the revolution takes the shape of storage bins. Three hundred of them, set in the crusted surface of a desert and tokening the arrival in the land of Egypt of the single greatest transformation the human race has ever undertaken: the change from hunting and gathering to husbandry and farming.
Before there was farming, the inhabitants of Egypt had lived peripatetic lives, collecting the natural resources of the land according to the seasons of the year. These storage bins, however, groups of circular pits set beside the hearthstones of small settlements, were made by people who planted grain and later on had harvested the crop and who therefore had lived in the same place for a great part of the year.
The consequences of this change were literally monumental: within 1,500 years, the descendants of those first Egyptian farmers were building pyramids for the pharaoh. It is not surprising, then, that to modern minds the story of those fifteen prehistoric centuries promises a unique history.
When they were newly made, each one of those first-known grain bins could have held eight hundredweight of cereals, mixes mostly, of wild seed, emmer wheat and two-and six-rowed barley, crops that with a low yield would have required two to three acres of land to fill a single bin. Planted in October and November and ripened during the following months of growth and maturation, the contents of one such grain bin would have taken the farmers several days to harvest and would have needed further labour afterwards, to process the seed for eating.
In the 1920s, when the grain bins were first excavated, one of them still held a farmer’s sickle, a little tree branch nicely shaped into a wooden stick, with a row of notched flint blades set end to end along one side of it to form a single cutting edge. There were, as well, some seven pounds of harvested seed. Golden dry and so perfectly preserved that a museum curator once tried, unsuccessfully, to germinate some of them. They are the oldest known examples of Egyptian grain, that bounty which, millennia later, the Book of Genesis would describe as being ‘without number… as the sand of the sea’. Here, then, the inhabitants of the lower Nile had settled down, seeded the silty soil and begun to count out their years in harvests which in later centuries became so generous as to enable the building of the pyramids and finally, at ancient Egypt’s ending, to supply the bread to feed Caesar’s Rome.
Four feet across and half as deep, Egypt’s first-known grain bins were mud-plastered pits lined with rush-woven baskets that, after they had been filled with seed, were sealed with a strong flat lid made from a mix of salt and sand. Woven from their centre in a coil, some of these hefty grain baskets are of the same construction as Egyptian village baskets of today and, indeed, as those used by pharaoh’s work- men. Similar storage facilities were also used until quite recently by the Malike people of West Africa, who stored and traded their annual harvests according to their need. If the grain was well treated, they told a visiting anthropologist in the 1970s, if it were kept dry and stirred occasionally, the seeds would live within their bins for a full three years.
JOHN ROMER has worked in Egypt since 1966 on archaeological digs in many key sites, including the Valley of the King and Karnak. He led the Brooklyn Museum expedition to excavate the tomb of Ramasses XI. He wrote and presented a number of television series, including The Seven Wonders of the World, Romer’s Egypt, Ancient Lives, and Testament. His most recent book is A History of Ancient Egypt. (Link: http://us.macmillan.com/ahistoryofancientegypt/JohnRomer)