Friday, 28 August 2015

Fire (1 /2)

Fire  (1/2)

Fire has played a hugely important role in the lives of human beings since prehistory. Though the importance of fires for providing essential warmth, and facilitating cooking is both obvious and difficult to overstate, the almost ubiquitous social practice of gathering around a fire was likely crucial to the forming of social bonds within early communities.   As anyone who has wild-camped, or spent a dark night in a reconstructed hall will tell you, the dancing flames of a hearth fire often have the miraculous effect of  banishing discomfort, creating wellbeing, and bringing people together.
Yet fire can also turn against us; burn, kill, or swallow homes and settlements whole. Fire is an essential yet treacherous friend, and, for this reason, our relationship with fire has always been a complicated one.

Given the importance of fires for life, and community, and taking into account its treacherous nature, the study of historic cultures' relationships with fire is particularly fascinating. How did our ancestors view fire? How did they make it? And to what extent did they understand the mechanisms which underpin this essential tool?

In this series we examine the techniques likely used by the Anglo-Saxons and "Vikings" to make fire and the evidence for them, and discuss snippets of mythology pertaining to fire which give us glimpses of these cultures' understanding. We, further, present some findings from our own experiments with historic fire-making using widely available, forage-able materials.

Though today, to create fire, we might reach for a match or lighter, making fire in ancient times was a complex business, often requiring much hard work, or specially prepared materials. Whilst members of pre-scientific communities would have had little understanding of the chemistry of fire, a practical "feel" for the process would have developed over time and been passed on between generations.

In the Anglo-Saxon and 'Viking period' of the Early Middle-Ages, the flint and steel method predominated but other even more ancient methods of fire production seem to have remained in use, too. It is instructive to examine both ‘fire-striking’, where sparks are created by striking a piece of flint or quartzite against a piece of carbon-steel or iron pyrites and ‘friction-fire’, where a piece of wood is rubbed or turned rapidly against another, so that the resulting heat of friction creates ignition in the black wood-dust produced. Both methods require the use of a series of tinder materials to bridge the gap between sparks or hot dust, and roaring flame.

Friction Fire

Friction fire is kindled by drilling a hardwood stick into a piece of softer wood. A notch is cut into the hole that rapidly forms, to collect the hot dust. At its most basic, the stick is then rotated rapidly back and forth between the hands. As the temperature of the resulting black wood-dust reaches 800°C, it ignites and becomes a burning ember which can then be transferred onto the tinder.
This process is rendered easier by use of a fire-drill of which there are two types : bow-drill and pump-drill. The former utilises a miniature bow, the string of which is wound once around the spindle of the drill. The bow is then moved back and forth thus rotating the drill very rapidly. The spindle is held stabilised by holding the bearing block in the left hand, while bowing with the right, while the base-plate is held down by the left foot.
The pump-drill comprises the drill-shaft, a cross-beam with a central hole (through which the shaft revolves), a heavy disc - which acts as a fly-wheel and a length of cord. The circular weight is attached near the bottom of the spindle and the cross-beam fitted above it. The string is run through a hole at the top of the spindle-shaft, then fixed to small holes on each side of the cross-beam, so that the cross beam hangs just above the weight. The shaft is then turned to wind the string around the length of the spindle causing the cross-beam to rise until the strings become taut. The tip of the spindle is then placed into a grooved hole in the base-board - as with the bow-drill and the cross-beam pressed downwards. This causes the drill to rotate rapidly. Once the bottom is reached, the weight is relieved and the drill rebounds, so that the cord re-winds and the process is repeated, yo-yo fashion. It must be said that the tool takes some practice to master but once this is done it is most efficient.

The archaeological evidence for the use of friction-fire lighting is very sparse, as the equipment is made from materials such as wood and fibre which tend not to persist in the ground. There is, however, considerable literary and linguistic evidence. The Norse folk had words both for the fire-drill and its use. Old Icelandic records the word bragð-alr - ‘twirling awl’ and bragðals-eldr - meaning the fire produced using the bragðalr. The term bragð means to move or stir briskly. No equivalent words in Old English are recorded but might be reconstructed as *bregd-æl and *bregdæles ál.

It might seem peculiar that this laborious method of fire-making survived into the Viking-Age when superior 'striking' methods had been widespread for many hundreds of years. Certainly, 'friction fire' is a useful survival technique that can be employed if one finds oneself in the wilderness with no flint or steel, but this does not seem sufficient to justify the continued importance of friction-fire. Rather than out of necessity, friction-fire may have survived for cultural reasons.
'Need-fire' (German; not-feuer., from Old High German nodfyr) is the name given in North-European folklore to friction-fire generated for religious / magical reasons. According to Sir James Frazer in his seminal work ‘The Golden Bough’, the Need-Fire was kindled in time of crisis by peasant-folk, particularly when cattle and sheep were afflicted by disease. Two bonfires would be lit from the need-fire and the animals driven between them. Normal fires had to have been put out for the magic to work. It was believed that the friction-fire was in some (pagan) sense ‘holy’ and sanctifying. Frazer believed these rites and beliefs to be very ancient, dating back to at least the Bronze Age. Such practices only died out in Europe in the last century.
It is interesting to note that in more distant Indo-European cultures the notion of friction-fire as "holy" is conserved. In one such case; ancient Hindu practice dictates that the kindling of sacrificial fire should be by means of two sticks - the two parts of the fire-drill. Hence the fire-god Agni, the brother of Indra (and son of Dyaus Piter and Prthvi) is said to have two mothers. The process is likened, in Hindu thought, to the act of procreation. The resultant holy fire is termed 'Arani'.

In Northern Europe, the fire-drill method of fire production has been preserved in the Runes. The rune for the letter ‘n’, which is *nauðiz in Proto-Germanic, nýd in Old English and nauð in Old Norse, clearly has the shape of the primitive fire-drill. The Rune poems are notoriously cryptic, but it is clear that what is the source of help, particularly for the man chilled by frost !
(Old English Rune Poem)
Nyd byþ nearu on breostan; weorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnumto helpe and to hæle gehwæþre, gif hi his hlystaþ æror. 
Need is distress to the heart; yet it is often a source of help and healing to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it in good time.
(Old Norwegian Rune Poem)
Nauðr gerer næppa koste; nøktan kælr í froste. 
Need gives scant choice; a naked man is chilled by the frost.
The Old English term nýd-fýr is generally taken to mean ‘need-fire’. This derives from the Old English word nied (Old West Saxon) and néd (Mercian), which means ‘necessity, compulsion, duty and distress’ and derives from the Proto-Germanic nauþiz. While this sounds reasonable, the etymology may well be more interesting, coming by way of the Old English gnídan - ‘to rub an object against another’. This is mentioned by Jacob Grimm, the famous German philologist and mythologist, in his Deutsche Mythologie, where he argues that the term nôtfiur derives from hnotfiur, from the root hniudan - ‘fire kindled by rubbing’. He goes on to note that in Sweden, the need-fire is called both vrid-eld and gnideld. The former derives from the verb vrida - meaning twist (cognate with the Old English word wriðan and the Old Icelandic ríða). The latter comes by way of the verb gnida - to rub (cognate with the Old English gnídan and the Old Icelandic gniða). It thus seems fairly safe to conclude that the original form of ‘needfire’ in Old English was *gnídfýr or *gnídál. The original Old Norse form may well have been gniðeldr.

Grimm also described the need-fire as ‘tüfel häla’ - meaning ‘despoiling the devil of his strength’ and believed that this was an allusion to Loki, who regarded as the Germanic fire-god / demon.

Hearth/forge-stone from Snaptun, Denmark, (circa 1000 CE) depicting Loki, emphasizing his role as a deity of fire
Perhaps the original Germanic fire-god of the Bronze Age was much more akin to the Hindu Agni than the horrifically distorted Norse demon Loki, and fire was seen as holy and purifying rather than demonic and destroying; an idea which has rather Christian overtones. If this belief in a holy god of purifying fire persisted into time of the Völkerwanderung and beyond it might explain the widespread cremation funeral rite and the persistence of needfire rituals across the breadth of Europe.

According to de Vries (in his Altgermanische Religiongeschichte 1976) the Catholic Church certainly tried to ban the Saxons from celebrating the needfire ritual. In 734 CE, a synod under Wynfrið of Wessex (later St. Boniface, the so-called Apostle to the Germans) included the needfire in their ‘Index of Superstitious and Heathenish Observations’, describing ‘fractum lignum’ (rubbed fire) as “sacrilegious fire”. Not too surprisingly, the prohibition was almost universally ignored and, not long after, Wynfrið met a timely end at the hands of a group of outraged Frisian warriors.
This Christian suspicion of friction-fire would seem to indicate that the practice of generating fire in this way survived as a pagan ritual into the early Middle-Ages, likely associated with the pagan cremation rite. The persistence of this method of fire-making (entirely obsolete since at-least the Iron-Age) may have provided a useful link to their cultural history and distant past, while, at funerals, the laborious task of creating transformative ancestral fire with this method may have represented an act of devotion to the deceased.  Further, the association between friction-fire and paganism may explain why no Old-English term for the techniques or associated tools (equivalent to those found in Norse texts) have come down to us in the preserved (Christian-compiled) texts. 


Unlike with friction-fire, the tools for striking fire, commonly referred to as 'strike-a-light' sets are more durable and can be identified with some certainty from as far back as the Neolithic. Early sets include a flint dagger and a piece of iron pyrite. The flint was struck against the piece of iron-pyrite where the flint edge shaved off a particle of metal which is heated by the friction and burns to produce a spark. These fire lighter sets are found predominately  in male graves, so lighting fires this way may have been seen as a male prerogative. With the end of the European Bronze Age (1st century BCE), the strike-a-light disappears from the archaeological record in the Germanic homelands but during the Roman Iron Age (1-400 CE) they begin to show up once more. In the Germanic Iron Age or Migration Period (400–800 CE) they appear often, in both male and female graves.

'Scandinavian-type' fire-striker set from Illerup Adal (right) compared to a more typical Iron-Age flint & steel set

The sets from the Roman Iron Age comprise a fire-steel and a lump of quartzite. These fire-steels were of two types; ‘conventional C-shaped or straight-edged carbon-steel ones and the so-called 'Scandinavian-type' fire-strikers, such as those from Illerup Ådal, which are comprised of a metal spike with a wooden handle. These have usually been found accompanied with stones showing characteristic wear from repeated use. 
Experiments have shown that this tool is effective but compared to the normal strike-a-lights, the process is much more difficult and not without risk of injury. With the flat striking-stone held cupped in the left palm, the striker is held in the right and the point of the steel pressed onto the stone. The stone is then struck rapidly with the steel and if all goes well and the striker does not slip and impale the hand, there should be a few sparks.
Some doubt has been raised as to whether these tools were really fire-steels at all considering the clear superiority of the common all-metal fire-steel. However, there remain no other satisfying explanations for these items, or their ubiquity. 

Over time the C-shaped steels evolved to have ends curved into a decorative spiral. This basic shape continued in use largely unchanged until the development of matches. A further type of fire-steel from the later Viking Age had an ornate copper-alloy handle often shaped like two opposed beast-heads with a long narrow steel plate attached at the bottom. They seem to have been used with a long narrow striking stone; the steel being slid across the stone to generate sparks.

c6th Fire-steel from high-status female grave-99, Mucking Cemetary 1  (Copyright British Museum) 
Reconstruction of above by Jason Green, Wieland Forge
Early Anglo-Saxon strike-a-lights often took the form of an iron bar with upturned curled ends, occasionally with central buckles, presumably to attach to a waist belt. There is some evidence that these may have, occasionally, mounted purses with which tinder materials and flint would have been kept. However, it is interesting to note how rarely pieces of flint are found accompanying such steels, in graves, while tinder materials themselves, if part of the burial ritual at all, naturally do not survive for examination.

It is worth noting that specialist, prepared tinder materials are all but essential for generating fire using flint and steel, in the traditional method. It is interesting to explore what materials may have been used at the time; a topic to be discussed in the next article.

Flint, tinder and steel (latter by Jason Green, Wieland Forge)
The modern equivalent of the medieval strike-a-light, the ‘firesteel’ is paradoxically not made of steel at all but is a modern synthetic - ferrocerium. It produces sparks of a much higher temperature than flint and steel (3,000 °C) which ignite almost any suitable kindling easily.

The Treachery of Fire

þæs ne wéndon aér witan Scyldinga·
þæt hit á mid gemete manna aénig
betlíc ond bánfág tóbrecan meahte,
listum tólúcan nymþe líges fæþm
swulge on swaþule....                             
It was not thought of by the wise-men of the Scyldings,
that any man by any means might manage to
that splendid antlered hall destroy,
cleverly cleave asunder. Not unless it was in fire's embrace
swallowed by flames.... 
                             Beowulf (lines 778-782)

In all likelihood our pagan ancestors would have considered the production of fire to be magical and a gift of the gods. First the Fire God had gifted them ‘need-fire’ and later the Thunder God had lent them his power to bring fire from flint and steel.

Smouldering remains of the first replica Anglo-Saxon hall at Bishops Wood Centre, Worcestershire, which burned down in 2008 after an ember from a cooking fire escaped the hearth.
Nevertheless our ancestors were likely acutely aware of the destructive power of fire, as alluded to frequently in Beowulf. Archaeological evidence, and the occasional unfortunate incident with reconstructions have shown the timber-framed and often thatched buildings of the Migration and Viking Ages to be particularly prone to burning down, with potential loss of life, and unavoidable traumatic loss of wealth.  In such dwellings fires can never be seen as trustworthy, and it is perhaps this which led the little-understood but likely part-benevolent Germanic fire-god to be seen in less than favorable terms, likely warping into the late Norse Loki when the deity's treacherous nature met with Christian notions of a fire-daemon.

Blackened remains of the original replica hall at Bishops Wood Centre left in situ following fire, with the replacement hall (completed in 2011) behind. 
Modern reconstructions of buildings from this age usually feature hearths in the form of boxes filled with nonflammable earth or sand, which serve to isolate small fires within from the timbers of the buildings. This is a reasonable stab at how "heorðas" may have worked to protect buildings, but is only sufficient when fires are built conservatively. This may have come naturally to our ancestors, burning precious logs and bundles won from hard toil, yet we modern folk often display an alarming instinct to over-build; a tendency that would have seemed both wasteful and reckless to folk of the 5th-10th centuries.

Inside of the reconstructed hall at West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, showing central earth-filled hearth. A neighboring building - 'the Farmer's house' was lost to fire on February 19th, 2005 and subsequently replaced. 
It is interesting to consider, however, the harmful aspects of the hearth-fire that our ancestors were likely partly, if not entirely ignorant of. In particular, the smoke produced by burning woodfuel in enclosed halls would have represented a major hazard to health. Though smoke would pass readily through thatch, out through eaves, or, as suggested by some Danish reconstructions, through specially prepared "chimney" openings in the roof (above a suspended stretched skin to keep rain off the hearth), the insides of dwellings would nevertheless have been very smokey environments. The abundance of remedies for eye and chest complaints in the 9th century Old English medical text Bald's Leechbook / Medicinale Anglicum attributable to smoke is strong evidence for the prevalence of smoke-related maladies among people of the time.  The long-term impacts of long-term exposure to wood smoke may have often included chronic respiritory problems and a high incidence of throat and lung cancers, roughly analogous to the risks associated with modern smoking habits. It is now thought, therefore, that this aspect of early Medieval life may, more than many others, have been responsible for limiting life expectancy.


In the next article we discuss tinder materials, and the results of some of our experiments with historic fire-lighting techniques.      (See next chapter HERE). 

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