Threshing & Hulling Emmer

Emmer is an old variety of wheat (and a Farro grain) grown extensively in the ancient world, including by Ancient Egyptians.

The four wild species of wheat, along with the domesticated varieties einkorn, emmer and spelt, have hulls. This more primitive morphology (in evolutionary terms) consists of toughened glumes that tightly enclose the grains, and (in domesticated wheats) a semi-brittle rachis that breaks easily on threshing. The result is that when threshed, the wheat ear breaks up into spikelets. To obtain the grain, further processing, such as milling or pounding, is needed to remove the hulls or husks. In contrast, in free-threshing (or naked) forms such as durum wheat and common wheat, the glumes are fragile and the rachis tough. On threshing, the chaff breaks up, releasing the grains. Hulled wheats are often stored as spikelets because the toughened glumes give good protection against pests of stored grain.

Wheat. Wikipedia.
Emmer spikelets Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum. POACEAE or Triticum dicoccon. Cultivar name: KHAPLI. Collected in: Madhya Pradesh, India, 1926

Functionally, this means that, with modern day wheat, one threshes the grain (beats it to release the seeds) then winnows it (separates chaff from seed by using the wind or throwing it in the air). But with emmer, there is an extra step in-between the two of removing the seed from the chaff.

A second series of the Manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians (Page 90). John Gardner Wilkinson.

In many areas where emmer was grown, the chaff was removed by pounding the spikelets in wooden or stone mortars with wooden pestles or mallets. The key to the process is wetting the spikelets first. The damp chaff becomes pliable and slightly sticky. Thus, when the spikelets are pounded, they are rubbed vigorously to­gether rather than crushed. The chaff can become quite flexible and the grain can pop out of the spikelet under the pressure of pounding. The pounding causes the chaff to shear apart and release the grain. Once the damp chaff and grain mixture is dried, the chaff can be sieved and win­nowed to separate it from the grain.

A new look at old bread: ancient Egyptian baking. November 1999. Samuel Delwen.

The steps to creating usable emmer grain are as follows:

  1. Harvest.
  2. Gather and dry in the fields 7-10 days.
  3. Thresh.
  4. Store grain with hulls/spikelets to prevent pests.
  5. De-hull (de-chaff) by wetting and pounding/rubbing.
  6. Dry.
  7. Run through sieve to free grain.
  8. Winnow (throw grain from one container to another on a day with light wind so the loose chaff blows away).
  9. Soak for porridge or grind for bread.

Samuel discusses archeological findings of shallow stone mortars and wooden pestles, with plant remains to prove they were used for de-husking emmer. While my book has a communal kitchen for one large family group (about 55 people), archeology shows that, in Ancient Egypt, people were more likely to have smaller mortars and pestles with one installed in each household.

Mortar and pestle for two people in Guinea

Whether we want to explain this by the fact that they were slaves and had huts instead of houses, that they were a separate ethnic group, or poetic license, I’m going to assume this large outdoor kitchen had more than one mortar and pestle. The author photographed some in Turkey with an inner diameter of perhaps 3 feet. But the Egyptian one is low to the ground with about 10 inches for an inner diameter and made of limestone with mudbricks and a plastic rim. Sieves were made from wood and grass.

These smaller mortars process about a pound of grain at a time, which the author tried himself and reports that it “does not take long.” The pestle is very tall and thick and one uses it while standing upright. A larger family would need a bigger mortar to de-husk the 89 lbs of emmer I estimate they would use each day. And might want it to be deeper as well, to better contain the grain.

Ancient Egyptian drawings and models from the Middle Kingdom represent larger, fancier operations. Either the palace kitchens or bakeries. They tend to use these smaller mortars but have more than one. They are in the back left of this model.

Model Bakery and Brewery from the Tomb of Meketre
A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes.

Videos of modern day usage of mortar and pestles like these seem to indicate perhaps 2-5 minutes to de-hull a pound or so of grain. One video shows 3 women pounding a raised, slightly larger, mortar. Another shows a single woman using a raised mortar and a skinny pestle. This could mean it would take as long as 2.6 to 7.5 hours to de-hull a day’s worth of grain (which I estimate as around 89 pounds of grain). Plus another 1-2 hours to sieve and winnow it. This video shows pounding and winnowing rice, which goes faster because there is no need to wet the rice first.

Let’s assume that the kitchen has at least two mortars. As the strongest workers get up in the morning and prepare to go to work, they take turns de-hulling. If 4 of them each spend half an hour (2 hours in real time), and we say they’re very efficient, that could be enough for the day’s grain.

Sieving and winnowing may have been done as one task.

[Seated] on the ground with her feet spread widely apart, taking in her hands a large but shallow sieve called ghurbal, some two and a half feet across [The Arabic word is ghurbal, the Hebrew word is kebarah (כְּבָרָה)]. [Using] a small amount of wheat…she commences by giving it some six or seven sharp shakes, so as to bring the chaff and short pieces of crushed straw to the surface, the greater part of which she removes with her hands…Holding the sieve in a slanting position, she jerks it up and down for a length of time, blowing across the top of it all the while with great force…Three results follow. In the first place the dust, earth, small seeds, and small, imperfect grains of wheat, etc., fall away through the meshes of the sieve. Secondly, by means of the vigorous blowing, any crushed straw, chaff, and such-like light refuse is either blown away to the ground, or else collected in the part of the ghurbal which is furthest from her. Thirdly, the good wheat goes together in one heap about the center of the sieve, while the tiny stones or pebbles are brought into a separate little pile on that part of it which is nearest to her chest. The pebbles, chaff, and crushed straw thus cleverly removed from the corn [grain], mainly by the angle at which the sieve is held and the way in which it is jerked up and down, are then taken out of the ghurbal with her hands. Finally, setting the sieve down upon her lap, she carefully picks out with her finger any slight impurities which may yet remain, and the elaborate and searching process of sifting is complete.

Peeps Into Palestine: Strange Scenes in the Unchanging Land Illustrative of the Ever-Living Book. James Neil.  London.  c. 1915.
Sieve/Winnowing Tray. “A large sieve with a wooden rim and a mesh of plaited leather thongs. Such sieves are used in winnowing, the grain being first tossed into the air with a fork, then sieved.” From Upper Egypt, purchased in a market in the 1920’s. CC license from British Museum.

How long does it take to process wheat?

If we assume our extended family group of about 75 people needs 89 pounds of grain a day (32,485 pounds per year), how many work hours a day need to be allotted to process it into clean whole grain?

Threshing is not terribly time consuming, at least not in comparison with the overall harvest. This harvest took place in the spring before the start of my story. While the barley and emmer harvests should have been in April and May, when my characters are in Egypt, the hail destroyed the former and the locusts the latter. There is no harvest; they’re relying on stocks from the previous year.

In Ancient Rome, an acre of wheat yielded 7.5-22.5 bushels of grain (about 450-1350 pounds). Given that Ancient Egypt is over 1000 years earlier and that emmer is lower yielding than more modern wheat, we’re probably looking at around 10 bushels per acre (600 pounds), enough for about 500 people, which means the labor for planting, harvest, and threshing is shared across households. After allowing for the weight difference of threshed vs cleaned grain (that 600 lbs per acre turns into 400 lbs clean grain) it seems my family unit needs around 81 acres of wheat fields planted each year.

An adult with a flail on a threshing floor could thresh 7 bushels (420 lbs) of wheat a day. That’s 77 full days of work to create the needed 32.5K lbs for 75 people. Now, my family group is actually only 55 people and the extra 18 (I was rounding to 75) weren’t there very long. So it’s really only 57 work days to thresh enough for the family.

Harvest and post-harvest would be a busy time so assume all hands on deck. Threshing could easily be done in a week, including time to process plenty of grain for Pharaoh, as part of their work quotas.

All of that’s already done though. The threshed grain is sitting in storehouses in the family compound, and in other areas to be brought in as needed. The chaff keeps pests away (an advantage of these older wheat varieties).

De-hulling aka de-chaffing can be done daily or weekly, it doesn’t matter, as whole grain won’t spoil quickly.


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