The ability to cultivate fire stands out as a distinct step in the development of humanity. The ancient Greeks believed that the trickster titan Prometheus stole flames for humanity to grant our species independence. What is the actual history of human interaction with fire? How did ancient people light fires? In the recently published study “The Earliest Matches,”* Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologists suggest that clay and stone cylinders from two 6th millennium B.C.E. Israeli sites are among the world’s oldest known fire starters.
Using ethnographic comparison, the archaeologists reasoned that Neolithic peoples would have quickly rotated the cylinders on fireboards, creating heat and friction and resulting in conical shape seen on the end of the artifacts. The fire drills from Sha’ar HaGolan and Telulyot Batashi are comparable to objects found at other Pottery Neolithic sites the Levant, including Jericho, Mureybet, Tel Brak and Ugarit, suggesting that archaeologists should re-examine finds from a range of Neolithic sites.
The fire drills are not newly discovered objects, but before the August 2012 publication of “The Earliest Matches,” they were misunderstood and labeled as cultic objects. Illustrated in preliminary excavation reports along with figurines, they were published as schematic phallus figurines. However, striations on the conical ends suggest rubbing against holes in fireboards, and scratches higher up on the cones suggest that the “matches” were quickly spun using a bow, a common fire-starting technique known from ethnographic comparison. The authors of the paper do not rule out symbolic connotations, noting that drills and fireboards may reflect gendered sex organs (and, in the opinion of this Bible History Daily author, the ability to create something as awe-inspiring as fire does not diminish the esoteric or generally “special” value of the artifacts).
“The Earliest Matches,” published earlier this month in the open-access, peer-reviewed Plos One, has broad implications beyond the specific artifacts that it describes. A re-examination of these Neolithic objects as functional instead of symbolic items can be applied to other contemporary objects as well. For example, the authors cite friction-created holes on boards from Kfar HaHoresh to show that they are actually fireboards, and suggest that other Neolithic artifacts, including famous examples of “game boards,” may, in fact, have served a practical function. “The Earliest Matches” has important value for understanding human interaction with fire, as well as understanding how we interpret archaeological artifacts.