Flint and Pyrite: Making Fire in the Stone Age

By Stapert, Dick; Johansen, Lykke | Antiquity, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Flint and Pyrite: Making Fire in the Stone Age


Stapert, Dick, Johansen, Lykke, Antiquity


Introduction

The domestication of fire must be ranked among the key `revolutions' in prehistory. The sociologist Goudsblom (1992) has drawn attention to the fact that of the main attributes of `civilization' -- tool-use, language and control of fire -- only one, control of fire, is beyond dispute exclusively human. Many publications have discussed the use and production of fire in prehistoric and historical times (to name a few important ones: Hough 1926; 1928; Birket-Smith 1929; Harrison 1958; Oakley 1955; Perles 1977; Pyne 1995; Collina-Girard 1998). Many authors have suggested two stages in the domestication of fire: the `age of fire used' and the `age of fire kindled' (after Frazer 1930). We do not know when ways to produce fire were first invented, but it is reasonable to assume that people knew how to make fire since the moment that hearths are a regular phenomenon on prehistoric sites; this is the case since the Middle Palaeolithic.

Archaeological evidence points to an increasing importance of the hearth in the daily life of small groups of people since the beginning of the last glacial. The Upper Palaeolithic hearth not only attracted many activities in which fire or heat was functional, but also played an important role in social life. The evolution of a simple language to a complex one, involving abstract concepts, may have been spurred by daily gatherings around the fire, where stories were told and rituals performed. The characteristically `modern' pattern consisting of dense rings of artefacts of various kinds around hearths, as observed at many Upper Palaeolithic sites (see e.g. Olive & Taborin 1989; Stapert 1992), seems to be largely absent in older periods. It is in any case remarkable that hearths in `socialized' contexts are found in large numbers since the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic.

Reliable knowledge about fire-making equipment from the Palaeolithic is hardly available. When studying material from Upper Palaeolithic sites in Holland, Denmark and Germany, dating from the Late Glacial, we noted `tools' of a type hardly noticed before: flint implements with a markedly rounded end (Johansen & Stapert 1995). These strongly reminded us of similarly rounded objects from the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Many sites from the latter periods contained rounded flints, often together with pyrites. Ethnographical sources indicate that flint and pyrite were used in combination to produce fire. Therefore, rounded implements from the Neolithic and Bronze Age have been interpreted as strike-a-lights by Evans (1872: 284) and other authors. In this paper we suggest that at least some rounded tools from the Upper Palaeolithic served the same purpose.

Two ways of making fire

From ethnographical sources we know that two basic ways to produce fire exist, both with many variations:

1 friction of wood on wood,

2 percussion or friction of stone on stone.

With both techniques, the produced sparks or glowing wood particles are caught in material that will easily smoulder. Though many materials are suitable for this purpose, one of the best seems to be the dried inside of Fomes fomentarius, a fungus growing on old or diseased trees. When a piece of fungus has begun smouldering it is used to set fire to some easily ignited material (e.g. thin rolls of birch bark). Friction of wood against wood can be achieved in many ways. Some well-known implements are the fire-drill (often involving a bow), the fire-saw and the fire-plough. Among the Australian Aborigines, men sometimes used their shield (soft wood) and spear-thrower (hard wood) together for this purpose (Spencer & Gillen 1904).

In this paper we shall be mainly concerned with the technique involving percussion or friction of stone on stone. According to Perles (1977: 33) it is possible to produce fire by striking flint on flint, but this does not work (Oakley 1955; Collin et al. …

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