This small piece of flint was a key element to a successful agricultural season in ancient Egypt. Grain was a staple of the economy, as bread and beer made from grain were consumed daily. They also formed the foundation of eternal sustenance, as funerary offerings. Ancient Egyptians used sickles made from flint and wood to reap grain. Pieces of flint such as this one were shaped to fit into a wooden haft along with a number of other such inserts, and secured with an adhesive. The flint pieces provided a sharp edge to cut the grain stalks. With use, the flint would wear down and develop a shiny gloss. The flint inserts could be re-sharpened or replaced as needed. Flint, rather than copper alloy, was the primary material used to make sickles in Egypt until the first millennium B.C. when iron became more widely available. The reason for using flint was probably multifaceted and included considerations such as its abundance, its ease of manufacture compared to casting metal tools, flint’s proficiency at cutting grain, and the relationships between the people who made flint tools and the people who used them.
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Dimensions:L. 4.9 × W. 1.6 × Th. 0.4 cm, Wt. 5g (1 15/16 × 5/8 × 3/16 in., 0.176oz.)
Credit Line:Gift of the Egyptian Research Account and British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1906
The way ancient Egyptians made flint sickle inserts changed over time. The earliest sickle inserts date to the Neolithic period, with many examples from the Fayum and Merimda Beni Salama (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934; Eiwanger 1984, 1988, 1992). Though it is possible some sickle inserts are earlier (Kindermann 2010; Riemer 2003; Shirai 2016;), evidence for agricultural activity and use of sickles is substantial by the mid-5th millennium BC (Eiwanger 1992: 75, 1999:608; Linseele et al. 2014; Wendrich et al. 2010; Rowland and Bertini 2016).
These early sickle inserts were made by completely bifacially flaking thin pieces of flint all over, and creating a coarsely denticulated edge. The denticulations average 2.4-2.9 per cm, with some as low as 1.5 per cm (Hart, in preparation; Shirai 2017). Usually one end is pointed and one end is squared, but pieces with two squared ends are occasionally found. The style of these inserts has been compared to slightly earlier ones from the Levant (Shirai 2016, 2017), suggesting influence from the Near East. However, the forms and the bifacial flaking technique closely match other local bifacial tools that have connections with earlier Northeast African desert cultures (Kindermann 2003; Lucarini 2012; McDonald 2016), implying that local practices and technologies were significant in the production of these sickles.
The organization of production for these tools is not well understood. Often raw materials of the appropriate size were not available in the immediate vicinity (Debono and Mortensen 1990: 52; Phillipps 2006:127; Shirai 2010:276-286), suggesting that the raw materials had to be procured from farther afield. In the Fayum, lithic artifacts circulated from production sites, but remained within limited areas like lake basins (Holdaway et al. 2016:177; Holdaway and Wendrich 2017: 94-95). Variability in sizes and forms suggest that production was not highly standardized. Overall, these bifacial sickle inserts were likely made in a diffusely specialized system of production, probably in the communities or regions where they were used.
In the Fayum, a complete composite sickle was found in a storage pit near Kom K (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934:45). Multiple inserts were set into a straight wooden haft and held in place with resin (ibid). Experimental archaeology has shown that coarsely serrated sickle inserts like these work better under certain harvesting conditions than others, such as when the plants are more mature rather than still partially green (Lucarini 2008:457; Quintero et al. 1997:281; Yamada 2000:237).
Bifacial sickle inserts continued to be used into the 4th millennium BC. They have been found at sites such as Adaïma (Midant-Reynes and Buchez 2002), Abydos (Hart 2017), Hemmamiya (Holmes 1989), Maadi (Rizkana and Seeher 1988), and others. However, they are less numerous than in earlier sites and include new forms, such as bi-pointed pieces, indicating some changes in sickle production.
Sickle inserts could also be made on blades. A blade is a thin piece of flint removed from a core in such a way that it has parallel margins, and is at least twice as long as it is wide (Tixier 1963:35-39). The sickle inserts made on blades were only retouched on the edges rather than being shaped and thinned all over like the bifacial sickle inserts. Sickle inserts made on blades are present in the 5th millennium BCE, but are extremely rare (e.g. Eiwanger 198847, Pl. 46, I.879; Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934:45). They became more common in the 4th millennium BC.
However, there was a fair amount of variability in the lengths of sickle inserts in the fourth millennium BC. Complete examples range from less than 4 cm, to over 12 cm (e.g. Brooklyn Museum 07.447.827; Midant-Reynes and Buchez 2002:348, nos. 185, 187; Rizkana and Seeher 1988: Pl.75 no. 2). Additionally, in Maadi, sickle inserts may have also been made on Canaanean blades imported from the Levant which have different metric and functional attributes (Rizkana and Seeher 1988:35-36). However, such an early date for Canaanean blades is not always accepted (Milevski et al. 2011). The differences in blade sizes during this period suggest that multiple hafting methods could have been practiced, such as both straight and curved sickles. Unfortunately, no wooden sickle hafts dating to the Predynastic Period have been found.
The sickle inserts made on blades were usually retouched on the ends and one lateral edge to adjust how they fit into the wooden hafts. The position of the retouch was not particularly standardized and could be direct or inverse (Hart, in preparation). Additionally, the inserts were almost always denticulated on the working edge (ibid; Rizkana & Seeher 1988:36). Unlike the earlier bifacial sickle inserts, the denticulation is finer, between 3-4 denticulations per cm. The denticulations could be made with direct, inverse, or bifacial edge retouch (Hart, in preparation). It is difficult to say whether these denticulations were part of the initial production of the inserts, were later rejuvenation, or a combination. However, there are examples of inserts with gloss on both margins, showing that they were at least sometimes re-used after they initially wore down (e.g. Brooklyn museum 07.447.821; (Midant-Reynes and Buchez 2002: 350, no. 205; Rizkana and Seeher 1988: Pl. 74, no. 4).
Overall, there is a lot of variability rather than standardization in sickle inserts of the fourth millennium BC, including in technological type (bifacial inserts vs. edge-retouched blades), length, position of retouch, and possibly even hafting methods. This variation may reflect different emerging or competing systems of production, and it is possible that the production of some inserts was more specialized than others. Thus, how a farmer obtained sickle inserts in the Predynastic Period may have depended on a variety of factors, such as their personal skills, social connections, where they lived, or local traditions.
Starting in the Early Dynastic Period, the standardization of sickle inserts increased. By the Old Kingdom, sickle inserts were made on narrow blades with little retouch or shaping. The ends were usually simply snapped to adjust the length of an insert so that it could fit into the sickle haft, and the back edges rarely show any retouch (Hart forthcoming, in preparation; Hikade 2013: cat. no. 139-158, Pl.14-15; Kobusiewicz 2016:328; Midant-Reynes 1998:23, 75). The denticulations continued to be quite fine, with 3-4 per cm, and at least some were used without denticulation of the working edge at all (Hart forthcoming, in preparation). Inserts with fine denticulations and non-denticulated edges, such as these, work well on cutting grain at the semi-green stage of ripening (Quintero et al. 1997:279). Additionally, the Early Dynastic – Old Kingdom inserts tend to have well-developed sickle gloss, which also corresponds well with semi-green harvesting, since inserts develop gloss more quickly when cutting moister plants (Unger-Hamilton 1992; Yamada 2000:237). Thus, a change in harvesting practice is implied compared to the Neolithic. This change is further supported by the fact that the overall shape of sickles had definitely changed by the Early Dynastic Period. Complete sickles from the tomb of Hemaka (Emery 1938:33-34), and one from an Old Kingdom context in Elephantine (Kaiser et al. 1980:175), show that sickles were curved, have a distinct handle, and were each made from a single piece of wood.
The standardization of the inserts points toward increased specialization, and this is borne out by the distribution of production remains. Cores for making prismatic blades, along with the associated core trimming elements and blade fragments, occur in staggering quantities at flint mining sites like Wadi el-Sheikh and Wadi Sannur (Barket and Yohe 2011; Briois and Midant-Reynes 2014, 2015; Köhler et al. 2017). In contrast, such blade cores are absent or extremely rare in Nile valley sites (Hart forthcoming; Hikade 2013:103-104, 117-120; Kobusiewicz 2016:327). Accordingly, the blades for sickle inserts must have been made in the desert flint mining sites and then imported into the Nile valley.
Evidence for re-use shows that the inserts were not just cheap items to be simply thrown away and replaced when they became dull, but had a higher degree of value. At some Old Kingdom sites such as Giza, at least 30% of sickle inserts show multiple phases of use (Hart forthcoming). The working edge could be retouched after use to re-sharpen it, or the insert could be flipped over and the back edge used. This data has implications for the production of the composite sickles. Since inserts were often re-set, the farmers probably had the ability to do that re-setting themselves. Accordingly, they must have had the ability to put the inserts into the sickles in the first place. Therefore, farmers probably were supplied with inserts by specialists, but put the composite sickles together themselves.
The value and elaborate supply system of the inserts is underscored by evidence from Ayn Asil at the end of the Old Kingdom through the First Intermediate Period. There, a system of local sickle insert production existed alongside the use of non-local sickle inserts made on blades (Jeuthe 2012:135-169; Midant-Reynes 1998:38-41). The locally produced inserts were made on thin natural pieces of flint found in the area. They differed in size, shape, and patterns of retouching compared to the blades. Given that Ayn Asil is located far into the desert, in the Dakhla Oasis, it is likely that supply of the sickle inserts made on blades was insufficient in some way, perhaps sporadic or expensive, and that local production compensated to meet the agricultural needs.
Sickle inserts continued to be made on blades into the New Kingdom Period and later (e.g. (Angevin 2012:161, Pl. 5.7, no. 1-4; Buławka 2017:92, 94, Pl. 1, no. 5; Jeuthe 2018:268-269, 283 Pl.6; Miller 1983:232; Tillmann 1992:94; Wilson 2011:106-107, Pl. 10, nos. s.204, 459). However, there was another major development in sickle insert production, hafting methods, and harvesting practices. By the New Kingdom Period, sickle inserts were also commonly made on large flakes. Unlike blades, flakes are technologically simpler to produce, because they require less core shaping. However, the size and shape of the resulting flakes are more variable than blades. The Met collection includes fifty-five examples from Lisht of sickle inserts made on flakes (select pieces among MMA 09.180.1377-09.180.2071 and 48.105.38k-48.105.41z). They all have sickle gloss. Sickle inserts made on flakes are also present in assemblages of other New Kingdom and later sites (Buławka 2017:91-94, Pl.1, nos. 7,8,10; Bruyère 1939:Pl. 42; Endlicher and Tillmann 1997: Fig. 1; Giddy 1999:Pl. 51, nos. 1502, 1757; Graves-Brown 2010:429, Pl. 26; Jeuthe 2018:268-269, Pl 2; Kemp and Stevens 2010:Pl. 22.8, left; Tillmann 1992:94; Wilson 2011:106-107, Pl. 10 nos. s.202,.480, l.10,11). The presence of chalky white cortex on many examples from Lisht and elsewhere shows that the raw materials come from a primary source. Thus, although producing flakes is technologically simpler than producing blades, it is quite possible that they were still made by specialists at the mining sites.
The technological characteristics are somewhat different from the blade inserts. These flake inserts are wider and thicker than the inserts made on blades, and the denticulations are coarser than the earlier blade inserts (Hart, in preparation). The examples from Lisht average 2.4 denticulations per cm (ibid). These inserts made on flakes show more frequent edge retouching and more variability in the location and position of the shaping retouch than Old Kingdom inserts made on blades (ibid). In the Levant, Late Bronze Age- Iron age sickle inserts were also made on flakes and also show a high degree of variability in morphology and size (Manclossi et al. 2018:99-101). Manclossi et al. (2018) suggest that each insert was individually shaped to fit into a specific haft alongside other specific inserts, and that accordingly, specialists must have made not only the inserts, but the complete composite sickles. So far, the evidence from New Kingdom Egypt supports a similar scenario.
Furthermore, specialist production of the composite sickles in the New Kingdom is indicated by the use of lime-plaster adhesives. Lime-plaster is much more difficult to produce and use than organic adhesives. Limestone has to be heated to extremely high temperatures (800-1000° Celsius), which requires (substantial) space, fuel, and pyrotechnic expertise. Once the stone has been fired, the resulting lime must be handled carefully because it can burn a person’s skin. After water is added and the putty mixture is applied and shaped, it has to rest and harden over a number of days. This involved process does not seem to be one that any farmer could carry out at will to make or repair a sickle, but rather the domain of specialists. Other suggested sickle adhesives involve organic materials such as gums, resins, and beeswax, or mixtures of these with inorganic materials (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934:45; Graves-Brown 2010:420; Lucas 1948:8; Spurrell 1892, 1894). However, Endlicher and Tillman (1997) analyzed adhesives on sickle inserts from New Kingdom Tell el-Dab’a using thin section petrography, X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence, and scanning electron microscopy. They argued that the samples were lime plaster based on evidence for calcite and high heating. A number of the sickle inserts from Lisht from The Met’s collection retain adhesives that are similar to the Tell el-Dab’a examples, consisting of a hard light-gray material with sand temper, that often covers more of one face than the other (MMA 09.180.1377-.1379 and 48.105.41m,o,p,r). X-ray diffraction analysis of MMA 09.180.1378 indicated that the matrix is primarily calcite, so it is certainly a lime-based adhesive. This evidence, along with the similarities to the Tel el-Dab’a examples, suggest that the Lisht adhesives are also lime-plaster. The use of lime-plaster adhesives for sickles was likely widespread in the New Kingdom because adhesives similar to the Tell el-Dab’a and Lisht examples are present at other New Kingdom sites (Amarna: Graves-Brown n.d.; Kemp and Stevens 2010:Pl. 22.8; Deir el Medina: Bruyère 1939:Pl. 42).
Composite sickle production by specialists and the use of lime plaster adhesive is also supported by evidence that the inserts were rarely if ever re-set. In contrast to the earlier Old Kingdom blade inserts, the examples from Lisht show no clear signs of re-sharpening, and none were used on multiple margins. If farmers did not have the ability or habit of re-setting their sickle inserts, then, by extension, they also probably did not initially make the composite sickles, leaving that process to specialists.
The wooden parts of the sickles were also more complex than earlier sickles. Beginning in the Middle Kingdom, and especially in the New Kingdom, sickles were made from multiple pieces of wood joined together, such as sickles from Kahun (Petrie 1890:29, 1891:12), the tomb of Tutankhamun (Carter and Mace 1933:143; Murray and Nuttall 1963:17-18), and examples in the British Museum (E.A.52861) and Brooklyn Museum (48.27).
In addition to changes in the production process and degree of specialization for sickles, there also appears to have been a change in harvesting practices. Depictions of grain harvesting in Old Kingdom tomb chapels show that the stalks were cut close to the ground and then bundled into sheaves (Murray 2000:521, e.g. the tomb of Raemkai, MMA 08.201.1). In the New Kingdom, the stalks were cut closer to the ears, and then the grain was collected in baskets (Murray 2000:522, e.g. the tomb of Sennedjem, as shown in MMA 30.4.2).
The above data indicate a trajectory of increasing specialization in sickle production over time, from diffuse production in every community, to concentrated production of the inserts, and eventually specialist production of the complete composite sickles. Each of these changes affected farmers and how they got their tools. In the earliest periods, sickle production was probably carried out locally. Later, in the 4th millennium BC, Sickle inserts made on blades appeared, which were more efficient in terms of time needed for production and use of raw materials. At this point sickle inserts were made in a variety of types, and the way farmers got their sickle inserts might have depended on personal skills, social connections, or where they lived. By the early 3rd millennium BC, when the Egyptian state formed, sickle inserts became more standardized and were mass-produced by specialists. The timing of the beginning of mass production with the coalescence of the early state suggests political sponsorship of production expeditions. Farmers likely relied on these specialists and extensive systems of production and distribution. However, when those inserts were not sufficiently available, farmers could compensate with local production, such as at Ayn Asil. Later, in the 2nd millennium BC, production practices changed again, with farmers obtaining the complete composite sickles from specialists and carrying out little repair or resetting of the sickles, which integrated them deeper into economic relationships.
These findings also make an important point about technological change. The longevity of flint sickle inserts instead of metal ones has often been explained by simple reference to the functional capability of flint and its abundance in Egypt. However, the presence of changes in sickle production show that this explanation is too simple. While flint abundance remained the same through these time periods, how it was used, by who, and the products made, changed. Furthermore, the changes in sickle production show that sickle function, economic organization, and even harvesting practices were in a dynamic dialog with technological, economic, social, and political factors. Sickle production was not static—it was a dynamic process that varied because it was deeply enmeshed in ancient Egyptian life.
Discussion of the individual piece:
This sickle insert was made on a prismatic blade. The dorsal scars follow the axis of flaking. Less than half of the dorsal surface is covered in cortex. The raw material is a semi-transparent grayish brown (10 YR 5/2). The blade snapped or broken on both ends. The left lateral margin is partially backed at proximal end of the edge, with non-invasive, abrupt, direct removals. The right lateral margin was shaped into a denticulated edge with non-invasive, semi-abrupt, inverse removals. The denticulations are slightly irregular and average 3.5 per cm. A semi-invasive sickle gloss has developed over the denticulations on both faces.
Elizabeth Hart, J. Clawson Mills Research Fellow, 2019
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Excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt with funds from the Egyptian Research Account and acquired in the division of finds. Acquired by the Museum through subscription, 1906.
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