Artifact of the Day for May 10, 2017 — Sickle


Today’s artifact of the day is a sickle. Like yesterday, this was found in the midden area (garbage dump) beside the one structure we are investigating. This sickle is made of iron, and has a sharpened blade edge on the inner curve. It would have been mounted in a wooden handle, which has long since rotted away. Also, the tip has been broken off.

The first settlers in this region would not have had access to any kind of agricultural machinery, so most of the work would have been done through hand tools like the sickle.

Sickle recovered from dig site.

This sickle is interesting because it has a smooth blade. Serrated blades appear to have been the preferred choice in American agriculture by a wide margin.

H. Stephens’ 1855 work “Book of the Farm: Dealing Exhaustively with Every Branch of Agriculture” (really, that is the actual title),┬áVolume 2, No 1, has a detailed comparison on pages 329-333 contrasting the cutting techniques of serrated vs. smooth sickles.

The main drawback to a serrated-bladed sickle is that it only cuts on a stroke when the tool is being pulled back to the reaper, and not on the motion of putting the tool into the standing grain.

The smooth-edged sickle is much faster at cutting than serrated sickles, but there are several drawbacks that negate the advantage gained in quickness. Most notably, they had to be made to very exact curvatures in order to achieve the cutting effect. The other drawback was they needed to be sharpened in the field, as the smooth blade dulls much faster than the serrated blade.

Example of a sickle with wooden handle.
Example of a smooth sickle with wooden handle.

Another drawback that occurs to me is the smooth-edged sickles required a slashing motion in order to cut the stalks. Holding a collection of stalks in one hand while slashing at them with a thin whippy blade that can easily cut to the bone seems to be a bit of an occupational hazard!

The blade on this sickle (like the one we found today) is in-line with the handle, suggesting it was used for cutting something that didn’t require a cut at ground level, as the wielder’s knuckles would brush the ground.

Harvesting by sickle was slow and backbreaking work. The invention of the scythe was a major development in agricultural technology even before more recent industrial mechanised agricultural machines. Here is a video showing a comparison of harvesting using a scythe vs. a sickle.

As an interesting side note, we found more Eclectric Oil bottles today. The bottles we have recovered so far must have come from different bottle manufacturers because you can see they are different! The one on the top recovered today is aqua, and the one on the bottom (the Artifact of the Day for yesterday) is more green, and is slightly smaller in volume.

Two bottles of Eclectric Oil