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Making Fire

How was fire made by the men of the old stone age, who have left remnants of their habitation at La Cotte de St Brelade?

In "Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization", Woolley and Hawkes describe fire making very clearly:

"There are two principal ways of making fire, though each has many variants. One consists in making sparks by percussion, the other in friction between two wooden surfaces, creating a fine wood dust that finally kindles enough to light the tinder. The only solid evidence of fire-making in Palaeolithic or Mesolithic times is for the first method, some cave-dwellers having made a strike-a-light from flint and a lump of iron pyrites. The friction methods include the fire-plough in which a piece of hard wood is rubbed to and fro in a furrow in softer wood, the rather similar fire-saw in which a sharp-edged stick such as bamboo is sawed across a slit, and the fire-drill where a hard pointed stick is rotated in a socket. The drill may be twirled between the palms but is made much more effective if rotated by means of a thong, cord or bow-string looped round it. It seems certain that one or more of these techniques would have been perfected before the end of the Mesolithic period. Here is an invention likely to have been made independently in different regions, always with variations determined by the nature of the woods available."

That flint was the major source of fire making equipment, rather than friction, is confirmed by the recent work done by D. Stapert and L. Johansen. They used experimental archaeology to look at fire making techniques.

They looked at flint implements with rounded ends, excavated at several Late Palaeolithic sites in Denmark and the Netherlands, and suggested that these could be best described and interpreted as strike-a-lights used in combination with pyrites.

Experiments were carried out; and it was found that the use-wear traces on the experimental pieces were similar to those occurring on the prehistoric specimens.

They concluded that the pyrite technique for fire production most probably predated wood-on-wood techniques, both in Europe and Greenland.

This makes sparks, but how is fire actually generated from these?

To understand this, in his essay "Making Fire with Flint & Steel", J. Gottfred actually tries this, and comments:

"Many survival or scouting books give different instructions on how one can start a fire with flint and steel. These books suggest various materials that are supposed to catch the spark. I have tried many of them, and I can attest that the people who wrote those books had obviously never tried it! I tried all of the following materials without success : punk (the powdery dry rot from the insides of fallen logs), cottonwood fluff, fine dry grass, fine wood shavings, dry moss, and various lichens. None of these materials worked, although they all made excellent small kindling once I gave up and used a match."

He then looked at the idea of the "tinder box". Tinder is "a flammable substance used to kindle a fire, especially charred linen", and this he used with great success. Using this, he found that in windy weather it is easier to start a fire with flint and steel than it is to use a match, in fact any wind fans the nascent fire.

But what if there is no cloth? He comments that "I have had success using the remains of the previous evening's fire by using my knife to cut down to the deep charred layer of a partly-burned log. Such a layer will catch and hold sparks, although not as easily as with charred cloth."

So the men who lived in La Cotte de St Brelade probably used some of the flints at their disposal for fire making. Once a fire had been established, the remnants of the fire made future fires far easier.

The Fire Makers

Outside the cave, the land is bleak and cold
But the winds cease here, upon the threshold
And here the wood lies ready, mighty trunks
To smallest kindling, all broken into chunks
And ready for the fire maker of this tiny tribe
Who speaks the knowledge to his son, no scribe
But only oral tradition, passed down by mouth
With learning of the stars, of north and south.
Now the fire maker holds firm within his hand
Flint and stone, for these are on the borderland
Of magic lore, and suddenly he strikes the flint
Again and again, sparks fly, then there is a glint
Amidst the kindling, the dry leaves, and the ash
And he cries out, a wailing sound, as the flash
Takes, a glow begins, first small then brighter
As the fire takes hold, the darkness ever lighter.



"Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization. Volume: 1". by Jacquetta Hawkes - author, Leonard Woolley - author. (1963), p140.

"Making fire in the Stone Age: flint and pyrite" published in "Geologie en Mijnbouw" ,1999, vol. 78, no. 2, pp. 147-164(18) by Stapert D[1].; Johansen L.[2]

[1]Groningen Institute of Archaeology, Poststraat 6, 9712 ER Groningen, the Netherlands [2]Institut for Arkæologi og Etnologi, Vandkunsten 5, 1167 København K, Denmark

Internet article by J. Gottfred on how to make fire (and your own tinder box at)