History of plows and farming

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Wooden model of an Egyptian man plowing with two oxen

Ancient Egyptian cattle plowing, ca. 1300 BC (Louvre Museum, Paris)

If you are going to plant seeds, like wheat seeds for example, and harvest them, then you are going to have to plow. Plowing is the hardest work of farming. Basically you have to make zillions of holes in the ground to put the seeds in, and you have to loosen up the soil around those seeds so that water will get to them, and so that they will be able to grow. One way of doing this is with just any strong stick, with a point on one end: you stick it in the ground and wiggle it around, and then drop a seed in, and you cover it loosely with dirt, then you do it again, and again, and again, all day long. These are called digging sticks.

An Egyptian using a hand plow, essentially a bent stick (about 1400 BC)

An Egyptian using a hand plow or ard (about 1400 BC)

But it’s faster to use a plow. The simplest kind of plow is a digging stick with a handle on it crossways – a scratch plow or ard. You push it along through the dirt, so it makes a groove, and then somebody else goes along behind you dropping the seeds in here and there, and using her foot to cover up the seeds again loosely. You can make the plow go a little better by hardening the wooden point in the fire, or by adding a stone, bronze, or iron point to the stick, to act as a wedge.

Han Dynasty plowing

Han Dynasty plowing

Now, you can make a plow go faster, by adding leather straps or ropes to the front of it, and fastening them to a donkey or an ox, or two donkeys or two oxen, or even four sometimes. Now you push the plow while the animal pulls it. In heavier dirt, more like clay, which is common in river valleys like Mesopotamia, it may be impossible to plow without animals.

A man using a heavier plow with a mold-board, with oxen (Tres Belles Heures du duc de Berry, 1400s)

About 500 BC, in the time of Confucius, scientists in China invented the moldboard. A moldboard is a wooden board that attaches to a plow, and helps the plow really turn over the dirt instead of just making a groove in it. Roman farmersdidn’t use moldboards, but moldboards reached Europe about the time of the fall of Rome. Can you see the moldboard here turning over the ground?

In the early Han Dynasty, about 200 BC, Chinese scientists also invented plows made entirely of iron, instead of just tipped with iron. These were much lighter and sharper than wooden plows.

Learn by doing: planting an herb garden
More about planting seeds

Bibliography and further reading about plowing:

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By | 2017-06-12T19:09:58+00:00 June 12th, 2017|Economy, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. History of plows and farming. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 12, 2017. Web. April 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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