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Firestones in the near Eastern Neolithic

Peder Mortensen
p. 153-158


Les pierres à feu en silex montrent une usure caractéristique : une série de coups aiguisés, irréguliers et des marques sur des surfaces restreintes de la tranche. On les connaît bien depuis l’âge de la Pierre et l’âge du Bronze en Europe du Nord. Au Proche-Orient, des pierres à feu ont été identifiées sur plusieurs sites néolithiques (Çatal Höyük, Aşıklı Höyük, Labweh et Beidha). On suggère que, au Néolithique, la méthode qui consiste à frapper un morceau de silex ou de soufre contre un autre morceau de silex pour obtenir du feu était généralement utilisée en Anatolie et au Levant. Mais l’absence apparente de pierres à feu – et de pointes de flèche à pédoncule également – dans les assemblages de pierres taillées du Zagros et de Hassuna/Samarra pourrait suggérer qu’au Néolithique nous avons affaire à deux traditions lithiques différentes, régionalement déterminées : une tradition occidentale, prévalant en Anatolie et en Méditerranée orientale, et une tradition orientale couvrant la Mésopotamie du Nord et le Zagros.

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  • 1 Adams 1996.

1It is generally acknowledged that fire has played a crucial role in craft specialization, technological innovation and experimentation as well as in the daily life of human beings since the early hominid past1. Nevertheless, very little is known about how fire was produced by our early ancestors. We may assume that it happened in the same way as we know from the original populations in Australia, Africa and South America, where until recently two methods of making fire seem to have been practised.

2One method involved intensive chafing of two pieces of wood, often in the shape of a wooden stick used as a fire drill against a dent in a piece of wood, which was usually held in position by the feet of the man or woman making fire. The wooden stick could be turned rapidly between two hands or by means of a bow-drill in such a way that the friction between the two pieces of wood would finally produce a smouldering fire in the dent.

3By another method two pieces of mineral were struck against each other in such a way that sparks of fire flew from each blow. Before the introduction of iron among primitive people, the minerals used for firestones or strike-a-lights were predominantly flint or some kind of quartzite combined with pyrite or lime-sulphur. To catch the sparks and make the fire blaze up a piece of touchwood, tinder fungus or some other kind of easily flammable material was required.

  • 2 e.g. Lomborg 1959, p. 158 ff., Koch 1990, p. 16-17, Stapert & Johansen 1999, p. 765 ff., and Jensen(...)

4Making fire by means of a fire drill usually did not leave any material traces which could be traced by archaeologists, whereas firestones made of flint are well known from the Stone and Bronze Ages, especially in Northern Europe2. In Scandinavia the handles of flint daggers were often used for striking fire, and in a number of well preserved burials, especially from the Danish Early Bronze Age, firestones were found in the shape of miniature daggers of flint, kept in a sheath of skin. In other burials one or two firestones of flint were kept in a leather pouch occasionally with bits of sulphur as well.

5Flints used as firestones show a characteristic kind of wear, produced by rubbing or striking a piece of flint or pyrite in a sweeping, oblique blow against another piece of flint. The result is seen as a series of sharp, irregular blow-offs and scars within restricted areas of the edge (fig. 2-3).

Firestones in a near Eastern Context

  • 3 Mortensen 1970a.

6Working with James Mellaart at Kanlıca on the Bosporus in 1964 I had the opportunity to study the chipped stone materials from the excavations at Çatal Höyük in 1961-63, and from Hacilar3. Although almost all the lithic objects from Çatal Höyük were made of obsidian, daggers and a few other tools were made of flint, probably because flint is a slightly harder kind of stone than obsidian. Among those pieces made of flint my attention was caught by a number of very thick blades, steeply retouched along the edges and densely covered along one or both edges and sometimes at the distal end by chopping marks similar to the traces found on the Danish firestones. Remains of some kind of organic material left at the proximal end of two blades may suggest that they were originally shafted. At two other pieces traces of sulphur were found in the scars of the heavily battered distal ends of the blades.

  • 4 The early distribution of the firestone or strike-a-light in Anatolia and Southeastern Europe is as (...)

7That the steeply retouched blades of flint from Çatal Höyük had to be interpreted as firestones was confirmed by the occurrence of a number of those tools in the rich burials from levels V-VI. As in the Danish Early Bronze Age graves they were often accompanied by a piece of sulphur and a few toilet implements – in this case usually a blade knife and a scraper. Placed in the middle of the graves they seem to constitute a small group of “everyman’s pocket tools”, possibly kept in a pouch or in a pocket4.

  • 5 Kirkbride 1969 and Mortensen 1971, p. 6-7.
  • 6 Mortensen 1970b, p. 38-43 and fig. 40-42.

8Along the Eastern Mediterranean, firestones have been identified at the Neolithic site of Labweh in the Beqaa Valley5 and at the PPNB site of Beidha in Southern Jordan6.

9The firestones from Labweh were all found at level I, the earliest ceramic level of the site. One type (fig. 1a and 2a-b) was made on strong thick blades with a steep retouch along the edges and with one or two areas of the edges covered by a concentrated series of sharp scars from battering. The length of these tools, which are almost identical to those found at Çatal Höyük, varies from 5.6 to 7.8 cm. Similar traces of wear were visible at the bulbar ends of two thick flakes, partly trimmed by retouch along the edges. The battering marks were produced after the flakes were struck from the core (fig. 1b and 3a-b).

10At Beidha the most prominent type of firestone, within the Beidha typology classified as type K3, is made of thick flakes with a plano-convex section, an ovoid outline, and the obverse face formed by squamous flaking (fig. 1c-d). Had these tools not been heavily worn along the edges by the type of wear described above, they might not have been identified as firestones, but would perhaps have been classified as scrapers. A fairly large number of thick blades or flakes were also characterized by concentrated areas of battering marks, indicating that they had been used as firestones (fig. 1e). Within the Beidha typology they were classified as types K1-2.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Firestones from Labweh (a-b) and Beidha (c-e).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Firestone from Labweh. One area along the edge is covered by battering marks. a. 1:1, b. ca. 6:1.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Firestone from Labweh. The proximal end is worn from battering. a. 1:1, b. ca. 7:1.

Regional Diversity?

11In conclusion it is suggested that the method of making fire by rubbing or striking a piece of flint or sulphur against another piece of flint was generally used in Anatolia and in the Levantine Neolithic. It is consequently assumed that future studies of Neolithic assemblages of chipped stone might produce new evidence of the use of firestones in eastern Mediterranean contexts.

  • 7 Meldgaard, Mortensen & Thrane 1963, Mortensen 1970c, 1973, 1983, and 2002

12It is notable, however, that so far the author’s search for firestones in Neolithic materials from the Zagros (Tepe Guran, Jarmo and Sarab) and from Mesopotamia (Tamarkhan, Umm Dabaghiyah, Tell Hassuna, Tell Shimshara, and Choga Mami) has proved negative7.

13This apparent lack of firestones – and of tanged arrowheads as well – in the Zagros and in the Hassuna/Samarra chipped stone assemblages might suggest that we are dealing with two different, regionally determined lithic traditions: a western tradition, prevailing in Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean, where the stone-tipped arrow and the strike-a-light, represented by firestones and pieces of sulphur or pyrite were predominant – and an eastern tradition covering Northern Mesopotamia and the Zagros. Here the absence of firestones in the Neolithic chipped stone assemblages might lead to the hypothesis that in these areas fire was produced by intensive chafing of two pieces of wood, perhaps using a wooden stick as a drill. Furthermore the absence of tanged stone arrowheads in the same region might possibly suggest that arrows and spears in Mesopotamia and the Zagros were made from wooden sticks, the points of which were not stone-tipped but tempered and hardened by fire.

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Adams (R. McC.) 1996 Paths of Fire, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Jensen (J.) 2001 Danmarks Oldtid. Stenalder, Copenhague, Gyldendal.

Kirkbride (K.) 1969 “Early Byblos and the Beqa’a”, Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 45, p. 45-60.

Koch (E.) 1990 “Gnistrende flint”, Skalk, 5, p. 16-17.

Lomborg (E.) 1959 “Fladehuggede flintredskaber i gravfund fra Ældre Bronzealder”, Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, p. 146-188.

Meldgaard (J.), P.  Mortensen & H.  Thrane 1963 “Excavations at Tepe Guran, Luristan”, Acta Archaeologica, 34, p. 97-133.

Mortensen (P.) 1970a “The Chipped Stone Industry”, in J. Mellaart, Excavations at Hacilar I, édimbourg, Edinburgh University Press, p. 153-157.

Mortensen (P.) 1970b “A Preliminary Study of the Chipped Stone Industry from Beidha”, Acta Archaeologica, 41, p. 1-54.

Mortensen (P.) 1970c Tell Shimshara. The Hassuna Period, Copenhague, Hist. Filos. Skr. Dan. Vid. Selsk. 5, 2, p. 1-148.

Mortensen (P.) 1971 “The Chipped Stone Industries from Labweh and Ard Tlaili”, Unpublished manuscript.

Mortensen (P.) 1973 “A Sequence of Samarran Flint and Obsidian Tools from Choga Mami”, Iraq, 35, p. 37-55.

Mortensen (P.) 1983 “Patterns of Interaction between Seasonal Settlements and Early Villages in Mesopotamia”, in T. C.  Young Jr., P.E.L.  Smith & P.  Mortensen ed., The Hilly Flanks and Beyond, Chicago, SAOC 36, p. 207-230.

Mortensen (P.) 2002 “A Note on the Chipped Stone Industry of Tamarkhan”, Iranica Antiqua, 37, p. 219227.

Stapert (D.) & L. Johansen 1999 “Flint and Pyrite: Making Fire in the Stone Age”, Antiquity, 73, p. 765-777.

Todd (I. A.) 1966 “Asikli Höyük - A Protoneolithic Site in Central Anatolia”, Anatolian Studies, 16, p. 139-163.

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1 Adams 1996.

2 e.g. Lomborg 1959, p. 158 ff., Koch 1990, p. 16-17, Stapert & Johansen 1999, p. 765 ff., and Jensen 2001, p. 519.

3 Mortensen 1970a.

4 The early distribution of the firestone or strike-a-light in Anatolia and Southeastern Europe is as yet unclarified. But a few specimens have been found by the author at Sesklo- and Dimini-period sites in Thessaly and at Vinca in former Yugoslavia. The type also seems to be present at Aşıklı Höyük in Central Anatolia : Todd 1966, p. 155.

5 Kirkbride 1969 and Mortensen 1971, p. 6-7.

6 Mortensen 1970b, p. 38-43 and fig. 40-42.

7 Meldgaard, Mortensen & Thrane 1963, Mortensen 1970c, 1973, 1983, and 2002

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Firestones from Labweh (a-b) and Beidha (c-e).
Fichier image/png, 81k
Titre Figure 2
Légende Firestone from Labweh. One area along the edge is covered by battering marks. a. 1:1, b. ca. 6:1.
Fichier image/png, 585k
Titre Figure 3
Légende Firestone from Labweh. The proximal end is worn from battering. a. 1:1, b. ca. 7:1.
Fichier image/png, 158k
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Peder Mortensen, « Firestones in the near Eastern Neolithic », Syria, 83 | 2006, 153-158.

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Peder Mortensen, « Firestones in the near Eastern Neolithic », Syria [En ligne], 83 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2016, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Peder Mortensen

Carsten Niebuhr Department,
University of Copenhagen

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