Archaeologists Identify the World’s Earliest “Matches” in Ancient Israel

Bible and archaeology news

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.

Some examples of fired-clay cylindrical artifacts identified in "The Earliest Matches." The highlighted section shows usage grooves that likely indicate that this was a bow drill, in which the force comes from above and a bow rotates the drill. Goren-Inbar et. al, 5 (link at the bottom of the article)

Charcoal, ashes and hearths as far back as the Paleolithic era reveal far earlier harnessing of fire. But even through the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (into the 7th millennium B.C.E.), there is no artifactual evidence for the production of fire. Most early pyrotechnologies would have been created out of archaeologically invisible material (“rubbing two sticks together” doesn’t leave a trace thousands of years later). Clay and stone “mechanical” drill cylinders would have functioned similarly to wooden drills, fireboards and bows, according to archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar and the other authors of “The Earliest Matches.”

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.

This limestone fireboard from Kfar HaHoresh features sockets, grooves and fire pans. Goren-Inbar et. al, 7 (link at the bottom of the article)

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.

*Goren-Inbar N, Freikman M, Garfinkel Y, Goring-Morris NA, Grosman L (2012) The Earliest Matches. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042213

Read Naama Goren-Inbar, Michael Freikman, Yosef Garfinkel, Nigel A. Gorin-Morris and Leore Grosman’s “The Earliest Matches” online in Plos One.

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6 Responses

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  1. CKitson says

    i always got a kick out of how whenever they don’t know what something is, and it’s long at all, it’s automatically a phallic symbol!

  2. kim says

    There is no mention of charring in the holes.

  3. Clifford says

    I found that extremely interesting. I now know that they had a portable tool to start fires and did not need to carry hot coals in clay pots as I thoght. Thanks

  4. BHD says

    CKitson, I read another story similar and it was a real shocker they weren’t phallic symbols. Obviously, it says more about modern “scientists” than antiquity!

  5. Ben says

    Having seen fire-drills in action, I am somewhat skeptical. While these may have been used as a bow-drill, to my knowledge a fire-board/drill combo has to be wood… The embers that come from the drill are not from friction alone, but from the dust created by rubbing the wood together. That’s why you have to have both hard and soft wood involved to make it work. Also, there is no opportunity for air-flow/ember collection from the “fire-board” holes… Unless I am missing something… If this thing worked, it would surprise me greatly…

  6. David says

    I’ll never take kitchen matches for granted again…. :)

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