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The History of the Hearth

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

In the shelter of a cave, a family of prehistoric humans gather around the crackling fire that serves as their source of warmth, sustenance and security. In the darkness outside, sabretooth tigers and all sorts of vicious beasts prowl the night; but here, in the comforting light of the fire, humanity begins to realise their destiny.

Cut forward thousands of years to the Middle Ages, and a lord sits on a chair in front of his hearth, gazing into the flickering flames as he plots the expansion of his domain. Humanity has learned to construct mighty structures such as castles and cathedrals, but the fireplace remains a constant companion.

The Light Fantastic

Fire was a source of fear and awe to prehistoric man. Then, one day, someone figured out that it could be used to cook dinner.

The name of whoever discovered the means to wield the flame will never be known, but it was they who set in motion humanity's rise.

Here are a few examples of the role played by hearths throughout history.

Four examples of historical hearths:

1. Prehistoric Camp Fires

2. Ancient Roman Hearth

3. Medieval Fireplaces

4. Victorian Fireplaces

1. Prehistoric Fireplaces

It's difficult to pinpoint the era in which humanity first learned to control fire; archaeological evidence of its use ranges from a million to 100 000 BC.

Fireplaces in the Middle East

Scientists investigating an ancient quarry in Israel claimed to have discovered the remains of one of the world's oldest campfires, dating back a million years and probably utilised by our ancestors, Home Erectus.

There were no obvious signs of fire, like charring, but the researchers studied flint tools found in the cave using an AI-powered program that could analyse whether they had been burnt. The program revealed that the tools had been heated to temperatures of at least 390°F (200°C).

Fireplaces in Africa

Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa is another site where evidence of early fire use has been discovered. Ash and bone fragments were unearthed, along with sediments that indicate regular fire use.

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The site dates back at least a million years, making Homo Erectus the likely occupants of the cave.

The Vestal Virgins tend the fire in the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

The Vestal Virgins tend the fire in the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

2. Ancient Roman Fireplaces

The Romans had a goddess, Vesta, who was the protector of the hearth, home and family. Her temple in the Forum Romanum had a sacred fire that her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins constantly tended.

This suggests that the hearth held religious significance for the Romans even if fireplaces were not standard in Roman homes.

Heating in Roman Times

Romans already had sophisticated forms of heating, such as the hypocaust, an early form of underfloor heating which utilised clay or tile flues known as caliducts to transport the heat from an underground furnace up through the floors and walls. This was how they heated their public baths, as well as private villas.

The ancient Greeks also utilised an early form of central heating; a fire was tended by servants and the heat was transferred under the ground by flues.

The knowledge of how to construct caliducts, along with many such achievements of antiquity, was lost with the fall of Rome. Come the Dark Ages, and civilisation was once again dependent on the heat provided by open fires.

3. Medieval Fireplaces

The image of a large wooden hall with a burning fire pit in the middle immediately comes to mind. Take, for example, the famous Viking mead hall.

In the Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf, King Hrothgar and his men drink and feast around the fire in the safety of their mead hall while the monster Grendel prowls the night.

Fireplaces in Medieval Fortresses

The hearth was generally located in the main hall during the early Middle Ages. These halls had high ceilings with a hole in the middle for the smoke to escape. The lord and his retainers would gather around the large fire in the hall to feast and discuss future plans.

The Rise of the Private Fireplace

The emergence of chimneys in the 12th century brought a significant social change. Fireplaces could now be built in smaller rooms, allowing the lord to withdraw to a private residence rather than join his underlings in the main hall.

This led the titular character of the great English epic Piers Plowman to lament the tendency of nobles to partake of their dinners in private chambers.

Now has each rich a rule: to eat by themselves
In a private parlour, for men's comfort
Or in a chamber with a chimney, and leave the main hall
That was made for meals, men to eat inside

- The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland

4. Victorian Fireplaces

The technology for central heating remained elusive even during Victorian times, but this is no great loss to modern folk for whom the Victorian fireplace remains a romantic and poignant image.

In this era, fireplaces were not just a source of warmth but a demonstration of wealth. The homes of the rich boasted grand, ornate fireplaces situated in intimate gathering rooms.

Victorian fireplaces were made of marble or slate and fueled with coal or logs. England is a cold place, so fireplaces were found in almost every room.

Such was their influence on the public consciousness that Victorian-style fireplaces remain in demand even today.

Home is Where the Hearth Is

The fireplace has been our constant companion throughout our history as a species. For millennia, it provided a place for safety, social gatherings and contemplation. Some of the first stories dreamed up by humanity would have been told around campfires.

Of course, with central heating, fires are now optional but remain popular because of their aesthetic appeal. It's a sign of how far we have come that the thing we once depended on for survival has now become mere decoration.

References

Fiona Jackson. 2022, January 16. World's oldest campfire? Ancient flint tools and animal bones discovered in Israel show humans may have tamed fire as early as one MILLION years ago (Mail Online).

2012, April 3. Evidence of 'earliest fire use' (BBC).

2017, January 19. Open Hearths, Ovens and Fireplaces (Medieval Histories).

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