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Gems of the Archive: Of Camels and Dragons

After being inspired by Dutch millwrighting last week, I was intrigued to explore how other cultures have developed and used similar methods. My research led me to discover a fascinating new world of milling technology.

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I have grown accustomed to reading about mills driven by oxen or donkeys, but the last thing I expected to come across was the use of camels to drive mills! This photograph shows a saqiya being powered by a camel walking around in circles. A once-common sight throughout Egypt, the saqiya is an ingenious mechanism which lifts water in jars in order to be used for land irrigation.

The Chinese also used wheels for irrigation – but due to their lack of camels, they used dragons instead. No, you didn’t misread that: a Dragon Spine is a type of wheel powered by groups of people stepping on its main crank, driving a belt of paddles which push water up a flume to a trough. The Dragon Spine can move large volumes of water at a time, making this method particularly useful for growing rice, which requires marshy conditions for cultivation.

Throughout my internship so far, I have learnt to appreciate the ingenuity and variety in which milling technology has been adapted across a huge spectrum of processes and cultures, each using slightly different techniques in accordance with their available resources and knowledge bases. It’s satisfying to see what a rich and diverse history the Gems of the Archive project is unearthing!