Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Old Europe: God Speed the Plough


The question being, when did Americans decide that "going down in the river to pray" was a Christian thing? We don't know. Here's a source to very tentatively suggest that it might have "American Indian" roots.

Well, duh. How do we make sense of Pontiac's Rebellion "facing east from Indian country?' Gregory Evan Dowd even has his warrior going down to the river. To pray?

He suggests that we take seriously all those dream visions of warriors diving into the river and coming out at the lodge of the Master of Life. Dow also thinks that it is important that we are getting these anecdotes through intermediaries linked to Connecticut's New Light movement. I agree. My problem is only that Dowd follows the unfortunate trend to make these things strange, "in order to recapture the Indian's poiunt of view," where I would suggest just listening to Alison Krause and encountering the numinous. That the New Light influenced the divers of Pontiac's rebellion is obvious. That the connection is syncretism in the sense spelled out by Richard White is clear. I'm just asking that we understand that dult full-immersion baptism in the running waters of the local creek is not a weird thing born of the weird American proclivity to break up into small sects. It's whispers reaching across two continents coming down from Aztlan, of the sacredness of corn hoed from the thick river soil, and of paths through the bramble, cleared by fire, that lead the buffalo onto the prairie. I ask for that because this morning at dawn, the sachem came out of the sky house on the top of the pyramid, blew smoke to the four directions, and told us to celebrate the Green Corn. 

I choose archaic terms. In no way is the President a sachem, and in no way is the pyramid on the Great Seal a reference to the great mounds. Summer idylls are not the Green Corn festival. To be sure, a comb drawn down a cob of (Chilliwack) corn will draw milky white, and everyone who has the time will go away to the lake. The point is that we will then float over deep waters like a historian over history.

That's an analogy I like. History is down there in the blue water, in the weeds. But the historians slide over the surface, going where they list, from wharf to the shore buoy to the beach and back. The weeds obsess us. Harmless as they are, they are frightening, reaching up to brush our legs no matter where we are. In our imaginations, anyway. The point is that we don't have to be above the weeds to imagine that they're there. The historical fact of the weeds can slip between the ages as easily as we slide across the surface of the water. It means what we need it to mean.

Now, I mark a different agricultural calendar here on the western shore of North American than in Old Europe. There, matters are a bit different. Wheat is a spring crop, not a summer one. The wheat is long since gathered in, and the great work of summer is ploughing. The ploughshare will turn the dark Earth up as many times as there is labour to do it.

 It is something that people have been doing . . . . a long time. As long as there's been worked iron, maybe? That iron ploughshare was like a patch of weeds at the bottom of the lake, wherever you need it to be as you swim across the surface. Or we could take it seriously. It should be a big deal, if you take the idea that you build history from the bottom up seriously. The first iron ploughs. Ought they not have changed everything? According to another of those awesome studies coming out of the flowering of the Turkish academy, on the Upper Tigris about 3500 years ago, it did. (For those who read Turkish, or Google Translate gibberish.)

The serious study of historiography is supposed to immunise us against the danger of floating on a sea of myth, our historical references displacing with our needs. So it is as well to begin with Marc Bloch's French Rural History, to an explanation of what makes the French, French. Their ploughs, in case you were wondering if I would ever get to something related to a point. Here, Bloch explains the difference between north French and south French, which even a callow graduate student like me knew about in terms of langue d'oc and langue d'oeil. The north uses iron ploughshares with mouldboards to turn the heavy soils of the north. The heavy ploughs, pulled by teams of oxen and horses, owned by an elite class of rural middle class laboureurs. They are hard to turn around, so that fields are laid out in long strips, which turn out to promote communal life, presided over by the wealthy laboureurs. The south uses the wooden ard, which scratches the light Mediterranean soils. It produces lower returns, but is within the means of a single family. Hence the patriarchal Mediterranean community, suspicious of authority, and less productive than the north! In the middle, meanwhile  is the forest France of mountains and valleys, where they're poor and eat chestnut bread, and throw rocks at the taxman from the heights.

If I do few favours to the genius of Marc Bloch, and perhaps imply that I was taught a less than profoundly deep reading of the book, I apologise, because I am trying to get across what I think was a legitimate, as opposed to snotty-nosed, chip-on-his-shoulder graduate student's response to this book. Which was: "Why am I coming in on the middle of this debate?" Not that I cared: it was at least a solid intuition that the discussion would be about late Nineteenth Century French politics, and there is not world enough and time, I then thought.

Until that is, I ran into this guy reading about a completely different subject: the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and, specifically, the role of the putatively Indo-European Sea Peoples therein.

Wikipedia has a link to Gaston Maspero's work, but I am going to suggest that you do not need to read his colossal history of the ancient near east to catch the implications of horn-helmeted warriors from the north invading the ancient Mediterranean civilisations and overrunning all save the southernmot, Egypt. The horn-helmeted barbarians may have come from Sardinia, rather than from Normandy via Norway, but the comparison was still exact. Vikings were Vikings, and 1145BC melts into 845AD. And as though this were not enough, the discovery of some iron ploughing equipments amidst coin and plate hoards in late Roman sanctuary fortresses assumed to have been erected by foederati Germans launched a new theory, still tempting us today, I think a century after it was first proposed, although in a spirit of almost Mediterranean laziness (I'm also fond of usury today, hint, hint), I am just going to link to some canned history on the Interwebs that takes the whole Anglo-Saxons-with-their-heavy-iron-ploughs-exploit-the-clay-ignored-by-the-Romans for granted.

Ploughs. They changed everything. Because certain ethnicities have an instinctive taste for hard work? Or because the plough you use leads you to have a culture that favours hard work vis a vis "quick, intelligent, but superficial civilisation?" Whichever. Anyway:

  Tuba Öksel, et al., “The Middle Bronze Age Farming Economy of the Upper Tigris Region: A Reconstruction Based on Archaeological, Archaeobotanical and Ethnoarchaeological Analylsis,” Akkadica 133, 1 (2012): 67—107

Abstract: Monumental Middle Bronze Age structures, that is, circa 1400BC, recently found on higher hills around Diyarbarkir, suitable for controlling agricultural activity in their regions point to the existence of an agricultural economy in the valley of the upper Tigris during the MBA. So we dug 'em up, looked at the paleobotanical data, and then went to talk with local farmers. Then we read the Ottoman-era tax returns, and now we've got this here synthesis for you.

So: this cool new post-processual site size-network theory suggested a  hierarchical state. This assessment is then tested by a reconstruction of the agricultural system.
-The region: the Upper Tigris region is bordered by marginal southern folds of the crest of the Eastern Taurus and isolated massifs to the south. The region is characterised by undulated plateaus surrounding the basin at altitudes of c. 500m.  (70) Soils are alluvial clays and silts, good arable land. (71)
The major crops are wheat and barley, with lentils, chickpeas, vines, orchards and rice plus (grazed) fallows, with livestock husbandry on wet lands and uplands.  (71—2)
Archaeobotanical research reveals a predominance of barley over wheat, legumes including garden pea, grass pea, bitter pea, vetch, various small-seeded leguminous types associated with clover, little grape, much carbonised wood indicating that the region was not deforested. (73) Some animal dung (capriform) recovered.
The reconstructed agricultural process is dry farming, which requires a minimum of 2—300mm of rain per year. The land is kept fallow every two or three years, or grain and pulses are alternated. The aim is to hold moisture levels constant year over year. The availability of moisture declines to 37% in a wet year year over year, 8% in a dry year. Fallow land must be ploughed and kept clear of weeds to reduce their water uptake. Fallowing without fertilizer yields more barley than monocropping barley with fertiliser with equal rainfall in the region. It is asserted that fallowing was invented by the Sumerians, and regularly used in the region in the MBA (75).
According to the Mesopotamian agricultural cycle, the land is prepared for sowing by ploughing and irrigation in October, and sowing is done in November. “The earliest evidence for fertilization using settlement debris in the 3rd Millennium is interpreted as an indication of a shift to annual cropping.” (75)
It is argued that ards had been used in the near East since the 4th Millennium. These ploughs were pulled by pairs of oxen, buffalo, or horses. With an ox plough, 1 ha of land can be ploughed within 3—10 days (by 2 men; or 3 if sowing is done at the same time.) A heavy iron plough turns the furrow more deeply and completely, and medieval data speaks of 0.49ha/day, or of a pair of horses doing .55--.64 ha/day, oxen 0.27--.37. (76)

In spring, the first green shoots appear, and the harvest is made from the middle of June on, with wheat not finally gathered in until August. In the Mesopotamian calendar, barley is harvested in April and May, wheat and lentils in May and June. (76) One person can cut 1 ha/8 days, or 2kg/hour gathered by hand (by uprooting), or 2.45kg/h with a flint sickle. The sheathes are then forked into “wagons pulled by oxen or sledges pulled by horses or donkeys.” (77) Unfortunately, although the changeover from flint to copper to bronze to iron sickles is noted with rough temporal guidelines. (Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age!), there is no suggestion of the efficiency gains.

Sheathes were then threshed and winnowed up until September. (77)
All this said, it must be admitted that a direct archaeobotanical attack is difficult because the sample size is so small! (78) However, we can infer that a family can cut a crop of 12 ha of land within 42 days, or 1 ha of land by ca. 5—10 people within 6 days (consulting modern farmers), or 400kg of barley in a day by 5—6 workers (Old Babylonian texts).

Yield varies with soil quality and rainfall, but 1 hectare of “fertile soil” requires 350—400kg of seed, and one hectare of dry soil 130—220kg of seed. The expected yield based on sowing 120kg/ha ranges from 1.4—10, or 438—1238kg, or in Northern Iraq, 7—900kg, while in the vicinity of Kirkuk, average yield without dung and with a one-year fallow system is ca. 1:10 for barley and 1:8 for wheat. (79)

The yield would have been lower with wooden ploughs, but the practice of heavier sowing in shallow furrows is preferable in some ways, since more seed absorbs more soil humidity. A yield of 1:3—5.5 for barley or 1:6.6 is attested (78)

So it is concluded (from literary sources) that the land necessary for the consumption of a family is ca. 2.6 ha, similar to the attested 2.4ha for the Ottoman period. With a 1-year fallow, this would be doubled. (81). For the particular settlement studied, it is concluded that if the MBA community at Salat Tepe cultivated 600ha of land, 351 is surplus to provide the net income (82). Many of these lands were either abandoned at the end of the MBA or taken over by presumably archaeologically-detected Middle Assyrian communities. 

These fascinating numbers show that just over half the land cultivated by a Middle Bronze Age family of the upper Tigris region is net surplus to subsistence. The broad inference that full rotation, which pretty much requires an iron plough, is going to halve the amount of land required for family subsistence and increase the surplus to 72% of production. It also, however, requires that you find something to eat all of the legumes you produce. (I think there might be a joke in here about excessive consumption of legumes having a downside, I'm just not finding it.) Indeed, if a communal level of organisation is achieved so that the labour freed up by the more efficient iron plough can be utilised, the efficiency gains will be even greater. You do, however, need that organisation. And bean-eaters. Lots of bean-eaters. Given the finds of grass peas and vetch, we may assume that the bean-eaters were not human, either.

So this is a story about the beginning of the Iron Age that comes back to Marc Bloch's insights with a chagrined tone. To the feet of the master we return, chastened, to understand this bottom-up sociotechnical change, with all of its implications, and I end with this anecdote, buried deep in H. C. Bradsby's History of Vigo County, Indiana  in  a hazy world at the doorstep of history, when Terre Haute is fading into existence as Fort Harrison is fading out, but also to an almost equally hazy age a few decades later, when old men were arguing, not about who the first White man was to live in the county or at Terre Haute, but about who was the first to plough a furrow there. It is an anecdote told and reprised several times in a very long book (that's going to be my excuse for not finding the money quote for you; but you can start following it yourself at p. 127). It tells of two men setting plough behind team on the great prairie outside the village at the "Indian Orchard," and doing more digging than all the women of the village. The old man telling the story ends by pointing out how impressed the Indian women were.

As,of course, you would think that they would be. Two men, a plough, and a team of horses have just ended hunger before your eyes. Old Europe has come to be baptised in the Wabash. God speed the plough.

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