Flaming urn from York Minster; framed by mourning cherubs on an 18th-century mural monument

At the TAG14 conference at the University of Manchester I took part in a fascinating and far-ranging session on the archaeology of fire – Stoking the Flames: Towards an Archaeology of Fire, organised by Lauren Doughton, Ellen McInnes and Rhiannon Pettit

The session was an unparalleled success in my view: the very best of what TAG can offer. It was a postgraduate led session and included a range of exciting papers. What appeared on paper to be a chronologically biased and theoretically disparate collection of case studies morphed immediately into a far-ranging, well-considered and insightful debate drawing upon previous discussions in print from Gheorghiu (2002) and Sorensen and Bille (2008).

There were (as is inevitable with any conference session) huge gaps in the coverage with few debates about fire in settlement contexts and architectural environments (from temples to halls), historic-period case studies (from the ancient world  to the industrial and modern eras) and little on the use of fire in heritage settings (experimental, performative (as discussed by Brophy et al.) but also museum-based evocations and envisionings). The potential for taking the studies into a landscape context was also latent and most papers remained largely site-focused. Looking again at the rich and varied evidence for fire use in and between prehistoric and historic settlement and field systems has much to offer in future research. I would have also liked to have heard more about expedient, urgent and accidental fires and fiery consequences (touched upon briefly by Doughton and in my paper). However, none of this was a distraction because the session was an appropriate, rich and varied set of papers tackling cross-period and interdisciplinary debates regarding how we interpret the traces, materialities and contexts in which past fire was deployed.

IMG_9282Part 1 – Hearths, Transformations and Burnt Mounds

Following a lucid introduction (Pettit), the first half of the session had papers explored the varied characters and experiences of late Mesolithic and early Neolithic hearths (McInnes) and the fiery transformation of axes in the Scandinavian Funnel Beaker Period (TRB) (Jensen). The roles of fire in the use of burnt mounds focused on Shetland were discussed next (Doughton), with a hint that an understanding of burnt mounds helps us to understand the wider significance of other fire uses, including cremation, in the Bronze Age. Complementing this study, the final paper before break was an analysis of burnt mounds from Hoppenwood Bank, Northumberland including new evidence for the possible use of fossil fuel as early as the Neolithic (Gardner).

A range of important key points derived from these papers, including the potential (if not fully explored) of adopting a material-focused view of the interactions of space, bodies, materials and fire, and the many dimensions to fire’s materiality – smoke, flames, embers, fragmentary and transformed bodies and substances etc. The relationship between fire and other elements was also a key consideration drawn out by some papers.

I felt more could have been developed between papers regarding the transportation (and transportation devices) of fire, and how particular kinds of fire, and their provenance, gave meaning and significance to fire’s use in past societies. Tending and maintaining fires defined roles and relationships – from beacons to hearths, from the fires in temples and used to light pyres to those used at seasonal assemblies. Fire’s source, movement and deployment therefore are far more significant than simply creating a spark. These papers also drew out the ongoing value of drawing upon problematic but still-valuable ethnographic and ethnohistorical sources, as well as experimental archaeologies of past fire use.

IMG_9287Part 2 – Cremation and Monument Biographies

The ritual uses of fire had already been touched upon in Part 1 but after coffee break we tackled the subject head-on with Emily Wright’s paper on cremation in the later prehistoric Mediterranean. Wright’s aim was to situate corporeal transformation by fire in relation to a range of other fire uses during past funerals to attempt to move away from a duality of disposal methods – cremation vs. inhumation – as the dominant theme in the study of her mortuary data. She looked at the experiential – both material and immaterial – dimensions of fire and their uses, using Bronze Age and Iron Age case studies to show how fire might have been important during stages of both cremation and inhumation practices operating in close proximity. This was a rich paper that made me think again about topics I have already published on. For instance, the revealing and concealing dimensions of the cremation process were discussed with precision and consideration. One issue I raised at the end inspired by her paper was how do we foreground the transportation and lighting of fires in past funerals? At least in historical and ethnographic accounts, it is often those who carry and light the pyres, sacrifice animals and cook the food, that are central to funerals as much as the fiery transformation of the corpse itself. Certainly fire use has many dimensions in past mortuary practice and cremation is as much a confusing term as a helpful one.

Rebecca Younger then explored the many uses of fire in the transformation of place during the life-histories of Scottish henge monuments. Using Cairnpappele Hill and Balfarg as case studies, she emphasised the importance of fire setting to clear and transform irreversibly spaces before, during and after monument building and use, and also the association of henges with fire-transformed materials, including the cremated dead. The dramatic sensory experience of fire is therefore balanced with the long-term mnemonic trajectories fires create and perpetuate.

Brophy, Goeckeritz and Macgregor were next up, turning to two public events created in the present on the Island of Arran, Scotland. These were as much performances as experimental archaeology. During 2013 and 2014, ‘Burning the circle’ involved building timber circles and experimenetal pyres, exploring the memories they created and the experiences they afforded, by preparing and attending fiery events. The aim is for these performances to enrich interpretations of the varied and complex monumental biographies of the kind explored by Younger for Neolithic Scotland.

The session ended with my paper on fire and cathedrals which I will blog about separately. One point to raise here is that I extended the focus from fire and is traces to also consider the representation of fire in commemorative practice, as shown in the illustration above.

The concluding discussion was enriching too and I left feeling there were many burning issues  remaining in the archaeology of fire, and this session did much indeed to stoke the flames of debate.