Harvesting with a cart: Pliny’s vallus and Palladius’ vehiculum

An on-going saga in agricultural innovation.

How can you harvest with a cart pushed backwards? This idea proposed by farmers in northern Gaul is original and unparalleled in the Roman era: it suffices to combine two implements, a cart (vehiculum) and a hand tool for cutting or stripping-off. The idea seems simple enough, but the machine that results from it is a bit more than complicated. Let’s try to see better how this works.

We can start with testimony from Pliny (1st century CE) and Palladius (around 400 CE?): Pliny, Natural History 18,296: “On the vast estates in the provinces of Gaul very large frames (valli) fitted with teeth at the edge and carried on two wheels are driven through the corn by a pack-animal pushing from behind; the ears thus torn off fall into the frame.” (Cited by K.D. White Roman Agricultural Implements, p. 158, translation not attributed)

Palladius, Opus agriculturae 7,2:

“In the more level plains of the Gallic provinces they employ the following short cut or labour-saving device (compendium) for harvesting. With the aid of a single ox the machine outstrips the efforts of labourers and cuts down the time of the entire harvesting operation. They construct a cart carried on two small wheels. The square surface of the cart is made up of planks, which slope outwards from the bottom, and so provide a larger space at the top. The height of the plans is lower at the front of this container (carpentum); at this point a large number of teeth with spaces between are set up in line to match the height of the ears; they are bent back at the tips. At the back of the vehicle are fastened two very small yoke-beams, like the poles of a litter; at this point an ox is attached by means of a yoke and chains, with his head pointing towards the cart; he must be docile, so that he will not exceed the pace set by the driver. When the latter begins to drive the vehicle through the standing corn, all the ears are seized by the teeth and piled up in the cart, leaving the straw cut off in the field, the varying height of the cut being controlled from time to time by the cowherd who walks behind. In this way, after a few journeys up and down the field the entire harvesting process is completed in the space of a few hours. This machine is useful on open plains or where the ground is level, and in areas where the straw has no economic value.” (Cited by K.D. White Roman Agricultural Implements, p. 158, translation not attributed)

Pliny, who is very concise, emphasizes the large frame mounted on a wheeled axle. Palladius, who is more precise and complete, starts with the two-wheeled vehiculum on which the large frame or vallus or winnowing van is mounted. Some authors tend to use the word vallus unsuitably, as if that were the whole machine. This is not the case. Vallus means the frame doing the cutting that is mounted on the double-shaft cart chassis.

A. Invention of the double-shaft vehicle

Stella of C. Valerius Ismarus. Two-wheeled vehicle pulled by double shafts. Verona, Museo Maffeiano. (G. Raepsaet, Attelages et techniques de transport dans le monde gréco-romain, Bruxelles, 2002, fig. 123, p.224).

A shaft cart is unknown in Antiquity, as in prehistory. Whether having two or four wheels, vehicles in Antiquity worked with a single shaft plus a yoke, with the exception of the people of Gaul and Germania, where a new vehicle model was created in the first century CE. This was usually a two-wheeled cart with double shafts pulled by a single animal wearing a single yoke (jouguet). This represented a surprising innovation that broke entirely with the whole tradition of cartage since the Neolithic, at least in Europe.

This cart was highly successful in northern Gaul, Germania, and in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). However, curiously, while the other models based on Gaulish know-how were adopted by Italy, that is not the case for the double shaft. Funerary monument iconography is rich and abundant in northern Gaul and, when compared with archaeological remains, enables us to reconstitute the way it worked. In contrast to the modern double shaft, pulled by a collar or breast-collar, the Gallo-Roman vehicle was harnessed to a small single withers yoke (also called a “neck” yoke).

Donkey Marius between the shafts of the harvester. © Malagne.

B. Moving from draft to pushing requires another innovation that is no less important: the lines

Diagram from G. Raepsaet, Attelages antiques. Jougs et jouguet. Approches ethno-technologiques, Etudes d’archéologie 9, Centre de Recherches en Archéologie et Patrimoine de l’ULB, Bruxelles, 2016, pl. 8, p.146.

The traditional structure of Gallo-Roman double shaft harness is based on putting the butt-ends of the shafts and the yoke together in a rigid manner. The energy produced by the animal passes from front to back. In the case of the harvesting machine, propulsion has to pass from the back to the front to free up the cutting edge. So the animal must be put at the back, in the double shafts, and only flexible lines enable this transformation of draft into propulsion. This is also a “first”. Double shafts and lines were not to reappear in Europe before the 10th century.

C. The cutting frame.

Ethnographic testimony provides us with various instruments, kinds of combs, that are used to cut, pull off or strip off ears or plants with seeds. For example, mesorias in Asturias. Only cereal plants with a fragile and breakable rachis can be harvested this way. It was François Sigaut who called researchers’ attention to this specific point and who established the link between the Gallo-Roman harvester and spelt, a cereal that was frequently found in Gaul and Germania.

The frame-comb during harvesting. © Malagne.

When it is fully ripe and the weather is dry, the older sort of spelt, when simply struck by the edge of the hand, would break. This is the principle the harvester works with. There is no crossed scissoring movement, as in mechanical harvesters developed in the United States in the 19th century. In the case of the vallus, the spelt ear is pinched in the rack-comb and, thanks to the speed at which it strikes, the rachis breaks and falls into the vallus frame.

D. Does it really work?

Yes, without a doubt, when all the conditions required come together. Since 2000, a pluri-disciplinary team has been experimenting with the harvester at the Domain of Malagne – Rochefort Archaeopark (Belgium).

The experimental conditions have varied each year, either out of choice or necessity. Climatic conditions are highly changeable in our area, so cereal ripening changes, as does harvest time. Older spelt had the advantage of being able to stay standing once ripened for a certain time, unless there was a storm or heavy rain, but the climax period is short. When optimal conditions prevail, harvesting is rapid and efficient. In just two back-and-forth passages, over 90% of the ears are harvested. The pace is 3 to 4 times faster than harvesting with a scythe or sickle and, when weather conditions are changeable, this can save a whole harvest. Time is money.

After an interruption of several years following the death of our donkey, experimental work took up once again at Malagne in 2015. Having gotten used to the machine at a younger age than her predecessor, the jenny Capucine is more at ease with the vallus. Since she is more slender, we had to make some adjustments to the lines and the straps (girths) of the harness.

Now that our donkey is fully operational, we can push our data collection on harvesting farther. The Malagne team thus began measuring the ratio of working time, plot size and yield. We have also carried out a comparison with other agricultural implements. This information will still have to be collected over several years to enable us to draw conclusions.

Metal tines, Warcq © Cellule Archéologique des Ardennes.

In parallel to this experimental work, the Malagne harvester has become a highly valued educational tool we present to tourist and school visitors. On our thematic days, plots are harvested with the vallus in front of the public. It is obvious that this machine arouses a deep interest on the part of both the scientific community and our curious visitors.

Today, we know that the vallus is an innovative and efficient machine, but it has yet to reveal all of its secrets to us and we have years’ worth of experiments for the future. In addition to collecting data in figures, the Malagne team plans to work on animal draft by measuring the force deployed by the jenny.

What is more, metal tines were discovered by archaeologists in Warcq (French Ardennes) in 2013. The first hypothesis is that they may be the tines of a vallus… In order to thoroughly examine this proposal, we have made replicas of these tines and test them in real work, by adapting the vallus we have at Malagne.

This experiment is part of an Interreg micro-project led by the Cellule Archéologique des Ardennes (Ardennes Archaeological Cell), the Musée de l’Ardenne de Charleville-Mézières (Charleville-Mézières Ardenne Museum), the Musée archéologique d’Arlon et Malagne (Arlon and Malagne Archaeological Museum), with the support of the European Fund for Regional Development.

The results of this research were presented in 2020 at Charleville-Mézières, as well as in an exhibit dedicated more broadly to agriculture in Roman Gaul at the Ardenne Museum. The exhibit was also held in the Arlon Archaeological Museum and the public could attend harvesting demonstrations with this new metallic comb during the Festival of Roman Gardens on August 2020 in Malagne.

A new generation is now on the scene. © Malagne.

E. Without double shafts and flexible lines, or without spelt, there would be no harvester. The Gallo-Roman harvester is a cross between traditional and innovative techniques.

Whatever led people to conceive of this original mechanism? In a traditional and autarchic agriculture, with plenty of cheap manpower, investment in this machine is difficult to imagine. However, northern Gaul, from the Seine to the Rhine, was the grain basket of the Roman Limes. The negotiatores frumentarii (crop dealers) who were supplying the Rhinish camps made a fortune. The camps’ needs were impressive, just as were those of the cities of Cologne or Trier. The large rural domains were commercially oriented and their economic success in the first three centuries of the Empire are indisputable. The advanced technology of the harvester represents an interesting element in the quest for growth that has been more and more recognized in recent scientific literature.

Georges Raepsaet and Florence Garit, MALAGNE – Archéoparc de Rochefort

Note: The original version of this article was published in Newsletter no. 15.