Firestarting

If you think of flint and steel as the old way to make a fire, prepare for disappointment: I can’t find any text mentioning it before Lucretius book 6 (who says that stone on stone or stone on steel makes fire), and except for a single example said to come from Afghanistan around the 5th century BCE (Cacciandra and Cesati- I have not checked this!), the oldest firesteels I have heard of come from the first millennium CE (supposedly there is one from the Roman military site of Oberaden, and a photo from the National Museum of Copenhagen shows some “iron age” examples: thanks Elena @valhalla@social.gl-como.it). Lucretius was born about 400 years after Plataea in a different technological tradition than sixth-century Southwest Asia and the Aegean. Perhaps flint and steel was more of a central and northern European tradition, like some cultures in Southeast Asia used fire pistons?

The Greek approach to firestarting seems to have been that it was a nasty sweaty business controlled by strange Powers so it was best not to let the fire go out in the first place. This made fire a social thing: it had to be kept smouldering, and if yours went out you asked your neighbours. There are ways to carry embers in a box or a pot and keep them burning for hours, and when Agesilaus’ veterans found themselves cold and wet on a mountaintop without fire or proper clothing, he sent them fire in pots (Xen. Hell. 4.5.3-4). When Alexander found himself cold with a few followers near the Antilebanon Mountains, he decided that the best way to get fire was to approach a distant campsite, burst into the light stabbing left and right, and run away with a burning branch (Plut. Vit. Al. 24.12-14).

There is a joke about how hard it is to make a fire by rubbing in the Cyropaedia (2.2.15), Aristotle’s colleague Theophrastus gives advice on the best woods for fire-sticks (πυρεῖα Theophr. Hist. pl. 5.9.6–7), and Pliny the Elder remembered that scouts in camp and shepherds used to make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together when they did not have “stones” (Natural History 16.207-208). Several different natural stones can be struck together to create sparks. A number of writers mention burning glasses or lenses (Aristophanes, Clouds, 771-773, Theophrastus De Igne 73, Pliny HN 2.239, 36.199, 37.28), and glass objects which can be used for that function have been found in classical sites. I don’t know of any sources for a fire piston or a firesteel/strikealight from classical or Archaic Greece. Flint-and-pyrite seems to have been used by hominids in Europe since the Paleolithic and Ötzi’s Chalcolithic kit with pyrite and tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) is well preserved. Susan Labiste, “Paleolithic Stone on Stone Fire Technology” http://www.primitiveways.com/marcasite%20and%20flint.html has advice from someone who learned to make fire this way using 19th century artifacts from the Arctic as her model.

John Lee suggests the following references for Greek firestarting:

  • Theophr. Hist. pl. 5.9.6–7,
  • Theophr. Concerning Fire 63 (translated in Victor Coutant, De Igne: A Post-Aristotelian View of the Nature of Fire {New York: Humanities Press, 1971}),
  • Plin. HN 16.207–8;
  • Harrison (1954) 218–26 = Harrison, H. S. (1954) “Fire-making, fuel, and lighting,” in Singer, Charles, Holmyard, E. J., and Hall, A. R. (eds.), A History of Technology, vol. Ⅰ: From Early Times to the Fall of Ancient Empires (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 216–37
  • Watson, Warren N. (1939) Early Fire-Making Methods and Devices: From the Stone Age until the Introduction of the Match. Washington, DC.
  • Xen. Cyr. 2.2.15

John Lee argues that the Ten Thousand organized themselves in groups no larger or smaller than could conveniently share a campfire (A Greek Army on the March). Unlike later Macedonian armies (Chrysafis, “Pyrokausis: Its meaning and function in the organisation of the Macedonian army,” Klio 96), this organization had nothing to do with tactical organization: people organized themselves into groups, rather than the captain of each lochos dividing it into files and each file and its servants sharing a fire, and if someone decided to switch groups that was his business.

Writings about fire from Mesopotamia also suggest that people tried to keep fires burning, and if necessary created sparks by some simple method which is never described in detail. The cuneiform lists of stones include an aban išâti “fire stone” which might be flint or iron pyrites. If you can read German, Erich Ebeling had this to say in the Reallexikon der Assyriologie entry for “Feuer”:

Über die Art, wie Feuer erzeugt wurde, ist man noch immer im dunkeln. Der Feuerbohrer scheint nicht nachweisbar. Dagegen spricht eine Stelle wie Thompson AMT 12, I, Z. 5, wo die Flamme (nablu) im Zusammenhang mit ‘Feuerstein (silex)’ und Ritzmesser genannt wird, für die Benutzung des Feuersteines (s. Thompson Chemistry, S. 126). Auch der aban išâti (nach Thompson pyrites, s. Feuerstein) und Schwefel könnten bei der Feuererzeugung eine Rolle gespielt haben (s. Thompson, Chemistry, S. 39, Anm. 1 und Ebeling, Archiv Orientální XVII, S. 193, Z. 341f.), doch ist dies alles sehr unsicher. Wegen der Umständlichkeit und Mühe der Feuergewinnung ließ man das Feuer im Kohlbecken (Herd) nicht ausgehen. In der Geisteswelt des Babyloniers ist das Feuer von großer Bedeutung. Erloschenes Feuer bedeutet Untergang der Familie (s. Kohler-Ungnad-Koschaker HG, Nr. 1741, dort Literatur). …

If you really want a fire steel you could point to the one from Afghanistan in Cacciandra and Cesati, but they don’t seem to have been everywhere like they were in Europe from the 11th to the 19th century.

  • Paolo De Sanctis and Maurizio Fantoni, Gli Acciarini: Fire-Steel (Milan, Italy: Be-Ma Editrice, 1991)
  • Cacciandra, Vittorio, and Allessandro Cesati, Fire Steel (Torino, Italy: E. Umbaerto Allemandi and Company, 1996)

… lighting: oil lamps, rushlights, pine torches with lots of resin (Greek δαὶς / Latin taeda, Aristophanes, Clouds 612) … burning glasses

People interested in survival teach ways to start a fire without a steel or a lighter, and this is a good skill to practice before you are cold and wet and hungry people with spears want to know when dinner will be ready. ‘Fire kit’ can be a useful keyword in online stores. Paleoscope in France sells marcasite fire kits

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