Wheat: Ancient and Ageless
Students will explore the importance of wheat in the development of culture by learning about the advent of agriculture, discussing wheat cultivation in ancient Egypt, threshing a head of wheat with their hands, and making a corn dolly out of wheat stems. Grades 6-8
- How Farming Planted Seeds for the Internet video by Patricia Russac
Activity 1: Wheat and Ancient Egypt
- Wheat Mummy activity sheet
- Wheat stems with heads, 1 per student*
- Machine Power handout
- Measuring cup
*Wheat Bundles are available for purchase from the agclassroomstore.com.
Activity 2: Wheat Weaving
- Container and water for soaking wheat stems
- Example Corn Dollies handout
- Wheat stems with heads, 3 or 6 per student*
- Gold ribbon or natural colored raffia, 2 pieces per student
- Optional: Red ribbon, 1 piece per student
combine: a machine that cuts crops and separates the seeds from the rest of the plant, combining the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing processes
corn dolly: a traditional figure made from straw, associated with pre-industrial harvest customs of Europe
sickle: a tool with a curved metal blade attached to a short handle that is used for cutting grass, grain, etc.
thresh: to separate the seeds of crops like wheat, corn, or dry beans from the plant
wheat mummy: wheat found in an Egyptian mummy case
winnow: to remove (the unwanted coverings of seeds) from grain using a current of air
Did You Know?
- Wheat grain has been used for thousands of years to provide food for humans.1
- Only wheat contains enough gluten to make raised or leavened bread.1
- The Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast and the first to use bread ovens.1
Background Agricultural Connections
About 10,000 years ago people began to figure out how to grow grains during the summer, store them for winter food, and use the leftover grains to plant the next year—this was the beginning of agriculture. Around the world, grain cultivation was closely linked to the growth of civilizations. Grains like corn, rice, and wheat produce seeds packed with energy and nutrition that are easy to store and transport. All of these grain crops originated as wild grasses. Over many years, people saved and replanted seed from the grasses with the most beneficial traits. Through hundreds of years of selection, people domesticated the wild grasses, turning them into the ancestors of the grain crops we know today.
Evidence suggests that wheat was first domesticated somewhere in the Middle East approximately 10,000 years ago. Many anthropologists speculate that primitive people probably chewed the wheat kernels before they learned to pound them into flour, which could be mixed with water to make porridge. From its center of origin in the Middle East, wheat spread throughout Europe and Asia.
The ancient Egyptians were not the first to cultivate wheat, but certainly wheat was one of their staple foods, and they were the first to discover how to make yeast-leavened bread. They fermented flour mixtures by using wild yeasts present in the air. Even though the Egyptians made leavened bread, they did not understand that it was the yeast in the air that caused bread to rise. It was not until the 1800s that yeast was identified as an organism that converts sugars into alcohol, producing a leavening gas (carbon dioxide) in the process. Because wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten content to make leavened bread, wheat quickly became favored over other grains grown at the time, such as oats, millet, rice, and barley. The workers who built the pyramids in Egypt were paid in bread. Bread for the rich was made from wheat flour, bread for those who weren’t wealthy was made from barley, and bread for the poor was made from sorghum.
Loaves of bread were commonly included in Egyptian burials as food for the journey to the afterlife. Model granaries containing wheat and other grains were also included in tombs. Many years later, in the mid-1800s, British archeologists exploring Egyptian tombs found these granaries and attempted to grow the grains. This is where the myth of mummy wheat began. Some claimed that the grains grew and produced more seed, which they then offered for sale. However, scientists have shown that it would be impossible for wheat seeds to grow after hundreds of years in a tomb.2
Wheat didn’t arrive in the United States until after the early voyages of Christopher Columbus. Here, the invention of the mechanical reaper by Cyrus McCormick in 1831 made it possible to harvest wheat much more efficiently. By hand, farmers could cut only two acres of wheat per day. With Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the mechanical reaper, farmers could cut eight acres a day. Many following improvements in harvesting technology make it possible for today’s farmers to harvest 150–200 acres of wheat in a single day.3
Today, wheat is an important staple food around the world, providing the flour needed to make bread, pasta, bagels, pizza crust, cakes, cookies, pretzels, and much more. Modern wheat production and processing is very different and much more efficient than that practiced by the ancient Egyptians. In ancient Egypt, wheat fields were cultivated entirely with human and animal power. The wheat was harvested with a hand tool called a sickle and threshed by using oxen to tread on the wheat. The seeds were then winnowed by hand and ground into flour by hand using large stones.4 Today, specialized machines do all of this processing. Giant combines harvest, thresh, and winnow the wheat, which is then trucked to a mill where it is further cleaned, analyzed, ground, sifted, and blended into different flours.
In addition to using wheat seeds for food, the stems can be woven into artful decorations and useful household items like baskets. The art of weaving with wheat stems (straw) is practically as old as wheat itself and has played an important role in harvest rituals for many different cultures. The ancient Egyptians believed in a spirit that lived in the wheat. By saving the last wheat stems and weaving them into an ornament, the farmer provided a home for the spirit until the next growing season. Similar beliefs and rituals were found in ancient Greece and Rome. The Roman goddess of the fields was Ceres, whose name is the origin of the word cereal. Red poppies, believed to bring luck, were Ceres’s favorite flowers. This may have led to the tradition of tying decorative red ribbons to wheat weavings.
In Britain, wheat weavings were known as corn dollies. Here, the word corn was used as a generic term for any type of grain, and dolly probably originated as a corruption of the word idol. Traditionally, corn dollies were made using the last stems of harvested grain. Wheat was most common, but oats, rye, barley, and corn were also used. The woven ornaments with the heads of grain still on the stem were hung on inside walls where they made it safely through the winter. These sacred grains were then planted the next season to ensure the fertility of the entire crop.5
- Show students the video How Farming Planted Seeds for the Internet by Patricia Russac.
- Discuss the video using the following questions:
- Why would some argue that farming is the most important technology?
- What changed when people began to get their food from farming rather than hunting and gathering?
- Explain to students that agriculture was the foundation upon which ancient civilizations were built, and it is still the foundation of modern civilization, providing us with food, fiber, fuel, and raw materials to make the things that we use every day. The practice of agriculture has changed dramatically over the years with the development of new technologies. The following lesson explores the history, cultivation, and uses of wheat, an important crop around the world.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Wheat and Ancient Egypt
- Using the Background section of this lesson as a reference, discuss with students the importance of wheat and bread in ancient Egypt and the myth of mummy wheat.
- Working as a class, label the wheat plant parts using the Wheat Mummy activity sheet.
- Divide students into groups of four, and provide each student with one wheat stem and seed head.
- Ask students to estimate how many kernels (seeds) are on their head of wheat. Then ask the group to total up all members’ estimates to determine a group estimate.
- Share the image of a combine on the Machine Power handout with students. Explain that modern farmers use this machine to harvest and thresh wheat. Threshing is the process of separating the seeds from the rest of the plant. The ancient Egyptians harvested wheat with a handheld tool called a sickle. They then stacked the wheat and threshed it using oxen to tread on the wheat.
- Instruct students to separate the wheat head from the stem, and set the stem aside.
- Next, show students how to thresh their wheat head by rolling it back and forth between their hands. There are rollers in the combine that perform a similar action to separate the kernels from their hulls.
- After students have threshed the grain out of the head, instruct them to shake the parts in their palms, letting the bigger and lighter parts of the head float to the top and the heavier grain kernels settle to the bottom. Now skim the largest pieces of chaff (hulls and other non-kernel plant pieces) off the top and discard. This is similar to the separating action in a combine.
- The students can now finish cleaning the chaff from the grain that remains in their hands. A combine completes the job by blowing air through the grain and chaff. The ancient Egyptians threw the grain into the air and then caught it in their baskets. They relied on the wind to blow away the chaff, leaving clean seed.
- Ask the students to count their seeds and determine how accurate their estimations were. Go around the room comparing each group’s estimations and their actual counts.
- Next ask each group to place their seeds in a measuring cup. Do they have a cup of wheat? How many wheat heads does it take to make a cup of wheat? How many cups of wheat kernels does it take to make a loaf of bread? (4-6 cups) What has to be done to wheat kernels before they can be made into bread? (They must be ground into flour; the ancient Egyptians did this by hand using large stones. Threshing and grinding wheat by hand like the Egyptians was a time consuming job!)
Activity 2: Wheat Weaving
- Preparation: Soak the wheat stems in warm water for an hour before this activity. Alternatively, you can wrap the wheat stems in a wet towel and put them in a garbage bag overnight or for at least four hours. Test the wheat to see if it is softened enough to work with by pinching the bottom end of the stems. If the stems make a cracking sound when pinched, they are still too dry.
- Explain to students that the mature stems of wheat (and other grains) are called straw. Ask if they can think of some uses for straw (animal bedding, weaving straw hats and baskets). Using the Background as a reference, discuss the history of wheat weaving with students.
- Share the Example Corn Dollies handout with students. Describe and demonstrate the traditional braiding technique:
- Begin by bringing the right outside straw under the middle straw.
- Then, bring the outside left straw under the middle straw.
- Repeat until the straws are completely braided.
- Hand out three or six wheat stems and two pieces of gold ribbon (or raffia) to each student. Instruct them to create their corn dollies using the following instructions:
- Cut the stems just above the first node if they are long enough to still have one. The node is the bump where the leaves attach.
- Remove any leaves from the stems.
- Use the gold ribbon to tie the stems together just below the wheat heads, leaving the ends of the ribbon long.
- Braid your stems using the traditional braid. If you have six stems, group them first into pairs. Then, braid the three pairs using the traditional braid.
- When you have braided to the end, tie the end of the stems together and trim off any excess.
- Now, you can loop the long braided stems into a design and tie them in place using the long ribbon ends left below the wheat heads. This will make a love knot, an ornament traditionally given to women in courtship. Or, you can leave your stems flat and straight and tie a red ribbon between the heads and the stems. This design is similar to the “glory” or “hair” braid that was traditionally hung in homes to sweep away evil and bring in friends.
- Discuss the way in which corn dollies were traditionally used to ensure the fertility of the next year’s wheat crop. How do farmers ensure a fertile crop today? (test the soil for nutrients and apply the needed fertilizers)
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- The practice of agriculture, which developed around 10,000 years ago, allowed people to stay in one place and build civilizations.
- The earliest civilizations created food production systems to meet community and personal needs.
- Wheat was an important crop and staple food for ancient Egyptians, and today it is an important crop and staple food around the world.
- Agricultural technologies have changed dramatically over time, allowing farmers to work more efficiently and provide more food to more people.
- A History of Food by Marguelonne Toussaint-Samat
- A Popular Account of Ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson
- The Book of Wheat Weaving and Straw Craft by Morgyn Geoffry Owens-Celli
Recommended Companion Resources
- Ancient Agriculture
- Food: How We Hunt and Gather It...
- From Wheat to Bread
- The Story of Food: An Illustrated History of Everything We Eat
- Wheat Bundle
- Wheat Grinder
- Amazing BREAD Processing- How It's Made Inside a Factory
- America's Heartland: Wheat Episodes
- Ancient Recipes - Foods of Bible Times
- Science: What is Gluten? Here's How to see and Feel Gluten
- The Food Timeline