The Prehistoric Society

Fire: Friend or Fiend in Human History?

Prof. Ruth Tringham, University of California at Berkeley

Currently in California, fire is seen as a destructive, terrifying force that gobbles up houses and whole neighborhoods, even small towns. Its destructive nature is used as a political pawn in the current struggle between federal and state entities in the US. And yet there is ethnographic and archaeological evidence that pre-European inhabitants of those same forested uplands treated fire as a friend, using it for constructive purposes. It is this ambivalence of our attitudes to fire that will be the focus of my presentation as the 2019 Pitt-Rivers speaker. The ambivalence permeates our interpretations of the empirical archaeological and ethnographic records of burning throughout prehistory and history. Was the burning event the result of deliberate human intent or was it accidental? Was the fire friend or fiend? I will explore how archaeologists (especially of prehistoric periods with no access to written records) can and do act as arson investigators many centuries (and millennia) after the event, in order to determine whether the fire was an act of accidental or intentional destruction. Lest my discussion of this fascinating topic gets out of control, I will focus it on the example of my own collaborative research into the burned houses (so-called “Burned House Horizon”) of Neolithic Southeast Europe and earlier examples in Neolithic Anatolia (Çatalhöyük, Turkey), in order to apply some of what we have learned and consider its significance in terms of the history of how fire has been managed and controlled and why fire is chosen as a means of the destruction of places, be they urban or rural, public monuments or intimate domestic places.

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