The Archaeology of Fire

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The Archaeology of Fire: understanding fire as material culture
Edited by Dragos Gheorghiu and George Nash
Budapest: Archaeolingua, 34 (pb) 

To modern humans, fire can be a threat (‘call the fire brigade’), a bit of fun (‘let’s build a bonfire’), part of an autumnal cleansing process (‘burning the weeds and leaves’) or a let’s pretend game of cooking out in the open air on a barbecue (‘back to nature ritual’). In all four there is a vestige of the far greater significance that fire played in the lives of our ancestors.

The Archaeology of Fire is a scholarly text that sets out to analyse these essential roles. In a series of papers, the book examines the evidence for how fire has been used as a tool to transform food (cooking), clay (pottery making), bodies (cremation), rocks (metallurgy) and landscapes (tree clearance).

As the introductory essay makes clear, the management of fire is part of what defines us as humans. It is the archaeological remains of fires that often constitute the first evidence we have for human presence in the landscape.

Several papers also observe that these relatively earthy activities also have a spiritual or symbolic aspect. In addition to transforming the night time into a world of dancing shadows, fire is central to many ritual events.

This is a vast subject and these 12 papers from around the world represent not a comprehensive coverage of the subject, but a few pinpricks of light in the dark.

Nonetheless, they certainly do make one think more carefully about the real meaning of those apparently mundane layers of burning that archaeologists regularly turn up in ditch fills and pits.

Review by Christopher Catling, Vice President of Cotswold Archaeology, and author of Salon, the Society of Antiquaries newsletter (www.sal.org.uk/salon).

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 25. Click here to subscribe

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