Hearths and Hot Rocks

- Pyro-technology in prehistoric societies

By Ulla Odgaard

Hearths are considered to be central elements at a settlement or in a dwelling, and many activity analyses have been carried out on the basis of flint material found around hearths. But the fireplace itself – its content and function – is often neglected in the archaeological research process, where maybe only a charcoal sample is taken.
Prehistoric pyro-technology is based in so-called "primitive combustion processes". The practice, however, seems to have been anything but primitive. My PhD work on function and ideology of arctic hearths (Odgaard 2001) showed, that the Palaeo-Eskimos made use of a versatile pyro-technology, adjustable to the most extreme conditions in areas where access to firewood was limited. It was further shown that the Palaeo-Eskimos also probably had the trans-cultural perception of the hearth as a symbol of the clan and as an opening to other worlds, through which contact with gods and spirits could be achieved.
However my work on the arctic fireplaces also provided the background for identifying problems and methods relevant for research on prehistoric fireplaces in general. Among other things the necessity of analysing one of the most numerous finds in the Arctic as in Denmark: fire-cracked rocks.

The aim of this project is:

To focus on research of prehistoric hearths and other fireplaces in Denmark in light of my previous research on function and ideology in Arctic hearths.

To survey the possibilities of obtaining new information from scientific analysis of hearths and especially fire-cracked rocks.

To participate in the ongoing international research on prehistoric pyro-technology.

Hot rocks and beer

In August 2008 an archaeological experiment with hot rocks will take place in Lejre Forsøgscenter. A "primitive beer brewing" project in cooperation with cand. agro. Peter Steen Henriksen from NNU (National Museum Environmental Archaeology) will experiment with brewing of beer in skin-lined pits.

Selected references

Odgaard, Ulla (2001) Ildstedet som livscentrum. Aspekter af arktiske ildsteders funktion og ideologi. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Forhistorisk Arkæologi, Moesgård, Århus.

Odgaard, Ulla (2003) Hearth and home of the Palaeo-Eskimos. Inuit Studies, 2003, 27(1-2): 349-374.

Odgaard, Ulla (2005) "The most extreme Situation. Contextual experiment with an Arctic hearth performed at Lejre Experimental Center". In: Experimental Pyrotechnology group Newsletter no. 2, 2005. National University of Arts in Bucharest.

Odgaard, Ulla (2006) "Ildstedet som livssentrum". I: Ilden i sentrum. Ottar nr. 4, 2006, p. 4-11.

Odgaard, Ulla (2007) "The Fireplace as Centre of Life". In: Gheorgiu, D. and Nash, G. (eds.) The Archaeology of Fire. Understanding Fire as Material Culture. Archaeolingua, Budapest. p. 61-84.

Odgaard, Ulla (2007) "Hearth, heat and meat". In: Gheorghiu, D. (ed.) Fire as an instrument. The Archaeology of Pyrotechnologies. BAR, Oxford.

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