Archaeology of fire: Methodological aspects of reconstructing fire history of prehistoric archaeological sites

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Concepts which are common in the reconstruction of fire histories are employed here for the purpose of interpreting fires identified at archaeological sites. When attempting to evaluate the fire history of ancient occupations we are limited by the amount and quality of the available data. Furthermore, the identification of archaeological burned materials, such as stone, wood, and charcoal, is adequate for the general assumption of a "fire history", but the agent responsible - anthropogenic or natural - cannot be inferred from the mere presence of burned items. The large body of scientific data that has accumulated, primarily through efforts to prevent future fire disasters, enables us to reconstruct scenarios of past natural fires. Adopting this line of thought, this paper attempts to evaluate the circumstances in which a natural fire may have ignited and spread at the 0.79. Ma occupation site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (Israel), resulting with burned wood and burned flint within the archaeological layers. At Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, possible remnants of hearths are explored through analyses of the spatial distribution of burned flint-knapping waste products. These occur in dense clusters in each of the archaeological occupations throughout the long stratigraphic sequence. In this study, the combination between the spatial analyses results, paleoenvironmental information, and various factors involved in the complex process of fire ignition, combustion, and behavior, has enabled the firm rejection of recurrent natural fires as the responsible agent for the burned materials. In addition, it suggested that mainly at early sites, where evidence for burning is present yet scarce, data on fire ecology can be particularly useful when it is considered in relation to paleoenvironmental information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-119
Number of pages9
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author is grateful for the support of the Martin Buber Society of Fellows, Hebrew University of Jerusalem . This study was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (center of excellence grant No. 300/06 ). The study of burned flint microartifacts was supported by grants from the German-Israeli Foundation ( GIF I-896-208.4/2005 ), and the Israel Science Foundation (grant No. 886/02 ). Special thanks are due to Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar, who allowed access to the data from GBY and assisted and supported every stage of the research. I thank the GBY staff and students at the Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for sorting of sediments and microartifacts. Thanks are due to Adi Ben-Nun, head of the GIS center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. S. Lev-Yadun and an anonymous reviewer are thanked for their constructive comments on previous versions of this paper.


  • Archaeology
  • Burned flint
  • Early Middle Pleistocene
  • Fire ecology
  • Gesher Benot Ya'aqov
  • Natural fires


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