Fire Archaeology…So Hot Right Now

By Karen Stevens
Kentucky Heritage Council

Authors Note: This blog post was prepared before news that yet another wildfire in California was started this weekend, this time due to a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” for a gender-reveal party. This blog is not intended to make light of the subject of wildfires, and we hope that those that have had to evacuate due to these wildfires stay safe.

Fire? Archaeology? What do these two things have to do with one another you may ask… well, a lot! In the field of archaeology, we look at fire and its relationship with cultural objects and landscapes in several ways.

How did people use fire in the past?

If I were to ask you how people used fire in the past, would your first answer be cooking?

How about using fire to keep yourself warm or to heat clay to make pottery? Fire has been used for many reasons by the people that have lived here in the past- from the Paleoindian period to the present. Sometimes, you may even stumble on evidence of people making fires today, like this through hiker campsite on the Appalachian Trail.

Through Hiker Campsite on the Appalachian Trail (Photo courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Horton)

In Kentucky, archaeologists find evidence of past fires when they see fire-cracked rock, hearths, and pottery. Other objects, like animal bone, plants, and seeds, that have been placed near or in fires also teach us about people of the past. Much of what we know about what people ate comes from these burned (or carbonized) seeds, nuts, and bones.

Archaeology also shows us evidence of Native Americans using fire to maintain landscapes. Native Americans have used fire to clear lands for horticulture (aka gardening) and to manage nut trees, among many other things. The Barrens region, located in western Kentucky, is one of the most popular examples in our Commonwealth of how people have changed a landscape through fire. Evidence of Native Americans using fire to manage the landscape can also be found in the Western US (see The Firelighters are back from Project Archaeology). By looking at the archaeological evidence of places we might see as wilderness (Appalachian Trail in the east, Big Barrens in the west), we see they are actually cultural landscapes, shaped and formed by interactions of people with their environments (see Barnes 2008 and Carlson 2009).

In addition to finding evidence of people using fires, sometimes archaeologists conduct experimental archaeology to learn about how an object is affected by fire. Last year the Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society told us more about their fire-cracked rock experiments. These fire-cracked rocks, or FCR, happen when you mix fire and heat with rocks!

Photo of fire-cracked rock from FOAS’s experimental archaeology blog post.

Wildfires Today

Archaeologists’ study of fire doesn’t stop at how people have used it in the past. Wildfires that happen today are also a concern for archaeologists.

In Kentucky, one of the places we see wildfires is in Daniel Boone National Forest. Most of the recent fires have been man-made. Causes of fires today include arson, escaped campfires, and debris burning (Source: DBNF). When a fire happens, whether it is a wildfire or a controlled burn, archaeologists follow behind to record artifacts uncovered by the flames. Just last year in October, archaeologists had to do this in Kentucky’s National Forests.

“As archeologists, a lot of what we do is myth-busting. We have a preconceived idea of what the history of this area includes,” stated Daniel Boone National Forest Archeologist Wayna Adams. “However, many of the artifacts exposed during our fire suppression effort can lead us to a different conclusion.” (Source: Forest Service)

While we don’t often think of archaeology when we think about forest fires or wildfires, recording archaeological sites after a fire is part of the recovery plan.

Learn more about fire archaeology:

Blogs & Video
Ancient Fires at Cliff Palace Pond (video, Kentucky Heritage Council)
The Barrens of Fort Campbell (video, KET)
Fire & Archaeology: Working together to protect cultural resources during wildfire & prescribed fire (video, swfirescience)
Wildfires and Archaeology (blog, Katherine Hodge, Project Archaeology)
The Firelighters are back (blog, Katherine Hodge, Project Archaeology)

Academic Dissertations
From Farms to Forests: The Material Life of an Appalachian Landscape (Jodi A. Barnes, 2008)
Middle to Late Holocene (7200-2900 cal BP) Archaeological Site Formation Processes at Crumps Sink and the Origins of Anthropogenic Environments in Central Kentucky, USA (Justin N. Carlson , 2019)

Other Resources
Fire Archaeology- Fire Effects (Linn Gassaway)
Wildland fire in ecosystems: effects of fire on cultural resources and archaeology (US Forest Service)

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