Farming in the Nile Valley

Ancient Egypt and Sudan: a Key Stage 2 guide to farming in the Nile Valley.

Nubian cooking pot (-1200/-1070)British Museum

Nile Valley

The ancient Egyptian state was formed around 3000 BC when political control of the Nile Valley was unified under King Narmer. This civilisation lasted until 30 BC when the Romans conquered Egypt. The Nile Valley climate consists of hot summers and milder winters and there is very little rainfall. Farmers in the Nile Valley have always grown many of their crops close to the river. The Nile used to flood between June and September/October, depositing new fertile soils each year which the farmers grew their crops on. 

Map of the Sudan by Claire ThorneBritish Museum

Where is Nubia?

Nubia is the region of the Nile Valley upstream (south) of Aswan. There were several powerful ancient Kushite (Nubian) kingdoms, based at Kerma (2000–1650 BC), Napata (800–270 BC) and Meroe (270 BC-AD 370). During the Middle Kingdom (2040–1750 BC) the Egyptian pharaohs conquered Nubia as far south as the Second Nile Cataract and built several forts. During the New Kingdom (1500–1070 BC) the Egyptian pharaohs re-conquered Nubia as far as the Fifth Nile Cataract and established new towns. One of these towns, Amara West, is being excavated by the British Museum.

Aerial view of Amara West and Ernetta island by Susie GreenBritish Museum

Amara West 

The ancient town at Amara West was originally built on an island in the Nile, similar to the modern Ernetta island shown in the photograph. Around 1200 BC water stopped flowing in one of the river channels and agriculture became more difficult. Today Amara West is surrounded by desert.

Photograph of a villa in Amara West (-1200/-1070)British Museum

What do we know about Amara West?

This photograph shows part of a large house (Villa E12.10) at Amara West. It is possible to see a hearth, storage areas, a room for grinding cereal and a room with ovens for baking bread. Hearths were used for heating rooms as well as for cooking. The town, like many pharaonic towns  found in Egypt and Sudan, has a temple, official buildings, granaries and housing suburbs. New excavations in the town are studying the houses in order to understand what life was like for the ancient inhabitants.

Charred cereal grains from Amara West (-1300/-1070) by Photograph by Aurelie Baudry-PalmerBritish Museum

How can we find out about agriculture in the Nile Valley?

1. Wall paintings: artistic scenes in tombs and temples illustrate many agricultural activities.

2. Artefacts: stone tools and pots are found in towns and tombs. Agricultural tools made from wood are usually only found in tombs, where they are preserved due to dry conditions which stop decay.

3. Ethnographic research: we can talk to farmers today about growing crops in the Nile Valley.

4. Archaeobotanical remains from towns and tombs: these are usually seeds, but sometimes food such as bread and whole fruits are preserved because of the dry conditions in tombs.

Archaeobotanist excavating a site in Amara WestBritish Museum

What is archaeobotany?

Thousands of seeds can be found on archaeological sites and these tell us about the types of food people ate. Seeds can get burnt when they fall into hearths and ovens. Burnt seeds are often found at archaeological sites.

The charred remains of burnt seeds were found at Amara West, including emmer wheat and barley cereal grains, lentils, peas and fruits such as dates and wild figs. 

Drawing of a shaduf by Claire ThorneBritish Museum

How did farmers irrigate their crops?

Farmers in the Nile Valley grew many of their crops in the fertile wet soils left after the summer flood. In Egypt, the annual flood stopped in 1970 after the building of the Aswan Dam. In Nubia, the river still flooded until the completion of the Merowe Dam in 2009. From the New Kingdom (1500–1070 BC) until the 20th century farmers also used the shaduf (a lever and pole) to irrigate cereals, vegetables and fruit trees. A shaduf could be used to lift water out of the river or canals.

Surveying the fields for Nebamun, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

What did ancient Egyptian farmers

This wall painting shows a farmer checking a boundary stone on his farm, and his fields being inspected by officials. Emmer wheat and barley were the most important crops and were grown to make bread and beer. Cereals were collected as taxes by officials on behalf of the pharaoh. Farmers also grew other crops such as lentils, broad beans, peas, watermelons and spices like coriander and cumin.

Emmer wheat (2017) by Photograph by Aurelie Baudry-PalmerBritish Museum

From harvesting to baking 

After farmers had grown and harvested the cereal plants, there were several crop-processing stages to separate the cereal grains from the chaff before grinding the grain into flour which was used to make bread. 

Harvest Scenes, tomb of Menna (New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty)British Museum

What happened during the harvest?

Farmers harvested cereal crops using a sickle.
The tops of the cereal plants (the ‘ears’) were collected in baskets.

Bronze sickle, From the collection of: British Museum
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Sickles were used for harvesting. The cut cereal ears were carried in baskets to be threshed. The cereal ears were spread on the ground and oxen trampled on the cereal to separate the grain from the straw stalk.

Harvest Scenes, replica of a wall painting from the tomb of Menna by Nina M. DaviesBritish Museum

Threshing and winnowing 

At the bottom of this wall painting farmers collect harvested
cereal ears in large baskets. Afterwards the ears are placed on the ground, perhaps
on a prepared surface, to be ‘threshed’. At the top of the painting cattle are being used to thresh cereals – the cattle trample the cereal ears to
break them up. Afterwards, the cereal is ‘winnowed’ to separate the grain and
the chaff. The cereal is thrown into the air using special ‘winnowing fans’
and the wind carried away the light straw and broken chaff.

Winnowing fanBritish Museum

What is a winnowing fan?

Winnowing fans were used in pairs with one held in each hand. The fans helped to separate the cereal grain from the straw. After being harvested and then trampled by cattle, the cereal was ‘winnowed’ to separate the grain and the chaff. The cereal was thrown into the air using the fans and the wind carried away the light straw (chaff). 

Storage bin from Amara West house (-1200/-1070)British Museum

How did ancient Egyptians store
their grains?

After threshing, winnowing and sieving, cereals are stored in large containers made from clay.

Houses at Amara West often contained large clay storage containers. These were used to store cereals and other foods. The containers were built up on stones to stop mice or insects eating the grain.

SieveBritish Museum

What did they do with the cereal after

Emmer wheat ‘spikelets’ were taken out of storage and pounded in a mortar to
release the grain. Mortars have not been found at Amara West – it is possible
they were made from wood and have not survived. Stone mortars have been found
at other ancient Egyptian settlements, such as the worker’s
at Amarna.
Afterwards, sieves were used to remove chaff
and weeds. Finally, the grain was ground
into flour
for making bread.  

Grinding stones from Amara West house., -1200/-1070, From the collection of: British Museum
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Barley and wheat were used to make bread at Amara West and other ancient towns in Egypt and Nubia.

Grain was ground into flour on grinding stones.

Food product and dishBritish Museum

Baking bread

This is what bread probably looked like at Amara West.

Examples of bread  rarely survive. They are sometimes found in ancient Egyptian tombs but have not been found in towns or villages. This is because the very dry conditions inside some tombs prevent the bread decaying. Bread was baked in special bread ovens in people's homes. Dough was put into the ovens from the top and pressed onto the hot oven walls to cook. Bread was also made in special pots called ‘bread moulds’ in temple bakeries.

Drawing of a sagia by Claire ThorneBritish Museum

How did farming change after Amara West?

and by the early to mid-1st millennium AD in SudanBy the second and third century BC (the Ptolemaic period) the waterwheel was also being used to irrigate (water) crops in Egypt and by the early to mid-1st millennium AD in Sudan. This made it easier to grow crops on farm land further away from the river. Sagias and shadufs were used in Egypt and Sudan up until the twentieth century. Today farmers use petrol powered irrigation pumps

Sorghum by Photograph by Aurelie Baudry-PalmerBritish Museum

When did sorghum start to be grown?

A few hundred years after the ancient Egyptians left Amara West, Nubians began to grow new crops along the banks of the Nile such as the African cereal sorghum. By the early first millennium AD, sorghum became the most important cereal crop in Sudan. Sorghum was also grown in Egypt, but here wheat remained more important. Sorghum grain can be used to make flat-bread called kisera - which is cooked on a hotplate instead of inside an oven. 

Nubian cooking pot (-1200/-1070)British Museum

Classroom activity

The charred grains on slide 6 and the cooking pot on this slide survived in the ground for over 3000 years. Materials are affected in different ways when they are buried. Test what happens to different materials such as pottery, fabric, metal, wheat grains, charred seeds and grains, stone and plant material (e.g. an apple) when they are buried in different types of soils.

Fill one tray with topsoil and the another with sand. Bury the same materials in both trays - water the topsoil regularly and leave the sand dry. Record what happens to the samples you buried after a week, a month or a whole term.
What changes do you notice?

In which tray have the samples been best preserved?

How does this help us understand what sort of evidence from the past archaeologists and archaeobotanists find?

Fragment of a tomb painting (Circa 1350 BC)British Museum

Classroom activity

The tomb paintings on slides 14 and 15 illustrate how ancient Egyptian farmers grew and harvested cereals. The different stages of the process are presented in a series of scenes. This is a very efficient way of telling a story without using words and is the technique we use when we make a storyboard.

In groups, discuss a process (how something is made) or an event and illustrate it on your own storyboard. Think about the different stages you will need to show.

What should people be wearing?
Are they using specific tools?
Where does the scene take place?

Take it in turn to share and present your storyboard to the other groups.

Painted wooden model group: three figures making breadBritish Museum

Classroom activity

Using this object as a starting point, imagine you are an ancient Egyptian farmer from Amara West. Write a first-person account of your daily life in the town. Remember that in ancient times the town was on an island. What would your life have been like?

Here are some things you can think about to get you started.

What is your house like?
What do you do during the day?
What you do eat?
What do you do at home?

Aerial view of Amara West and Ernetta island by Susie GreenBritish Museum

Classroom Activity

Trace the course of the Nile on a map. Identify the blue Nile and the white Nile. What countries does it run through? Using your knowledge of ancient Egypt, explain why the river was so important to the Egyptians (think about trade, agriculture, religious beliefs). Look at current photographs of the banks of Nile and describe what the land by the river looks like. Then, look at the aerial view of Amara West on this slide. Compare the land on Ernatta island with that around Amara West.

What caused the desertification of the land near Amara West?

What consequences did it have? Think about the effects it had on vegetation, on wildlife and human settlements.

What would have happened to the people living in Amara West when the water stopped flowing? Going back to your map of the Nile, find the Aswan dam. When was the dam built? Why? What impact (negative and positive) would the dam have had on the environment, agriculture and people's life?

Credits: Story

This project was created as part of the Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan Project.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Key Stage 2 guide created at the British Museum by
Philippa Ryan (Department of Scientific Research)
Illustrations by Claire Thorne (Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan)
Animations by Laurie Rowan.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AH/K006193/1]

Find out more about the project here.

Further information and references:

P. Ryan, 2016, From raw resources to food processing; archaeobotanical and ethnographic in sights from New Kingdom Amara West and present-day Ernetta Island in northern Sudan, In L. Steel and K. Zinn (eds.), Exploring the Materiality of Food Stuffs: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives, Routledge

P. Ryan, C.R. Cartwright and N. Spencer, 2012, Archaeobotanical research in a pharaonic town in ancient Nubia, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 6, 97–106..

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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