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Making fire

At Star Carr we have evidence that people were making fire. Professor Nicky Milner explains.
Arguably the most important skill in the past was how to make fire. Fire was the key to survival - keeping warm and cooking food. Although we have not found any clear hearths at the site, there is plenty of evidence of burning, including the large quantities of burnt flint, particularly within two of the houses, and clear patches of charcoal around the site. There are many different ways of making fire such as rubbing sticks together, or using a bow drill, but at Star Carr we think we have found a number of different pieces of evidence that suggest how fire-starting was carried out. The first piece of evidence is the discovery of iron pyrite.
Iron pyrite is a mineral, which looks a bit like metal and has a golden colour, and because of this is often known as fool’s gold. What is key about this material though is that when struck against steel or flint it creates a spark and this is why it is called pyrite, meaning fire in ancient Greek. A few pieces of this were found in the original excavations at Star Carr. Unfortunately they are very degraded so it is impossible to see any evidence of them having been struck. We also know that pyrite occurs naturally near to Star Carr on the coast in a seam of Jurassic clay and can be found falling out of the cliff.
Given that people probably collected flint from the coast, it is perfectly possible that they also found this source of iron pyrite in the same location. Our second clue is the strike-a-light flints, found during our excavations and examined under the microscope by Aimee. These had use-wear traces suggesting that they had been used for striking in the same way as you would when trying to create sparks with a piece of pyrite. Our final piece of evidence is the fungus. As we have already seen, many of these have been found at Star Carr and they have also been worked in order to extract the amadou used as tinder.
When we put these different pieces of evidence together it is clear that people were making fire and very probably they were using these three materials together in order to get the fire started.

Here several strands of evidence from Star Carr are pieced together to suggest how sparks might have been made and then tinder and wood would have been used to build a fire. This would then have been used for keeping warm and for cooking food.

From analysing the charcoal from the site, our evidence suggests that only birch and willow/poplar was used in making fires.

Further resources

If you would like to read more about the charcoal evidence please see Chapter 32 in our free book.

This article is from the free online

Exploring Stone Age Archaeology: The Mysteries of Star Carr

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