Fire, mud, pottery, cheese…

It’s already October, and the students have finished their first weeks of FSEM-180 Human Survival: Learning from the Past. As part of the course, the students were asked to write reflective essays on their experimental archaeology experiences. These essays can be viewed below, and more essays will be uploaded to the blog as the semester continues.

It’s been an interesting few weeks, so here’s a brief recap with some pictures.

Week 1: Introduction and Games

This first module didn’t involve any experimentation in ancient survival techniques–rather, students were encouraged to play games and get to know one another. Humans in the Neolithic didn’t have iPhones, the internet, or books to entertain themselves–they had to exercise their creativity and their social connections. We tend to think of Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples as desperate, survival-focused bands, hunting, gathering, or eventually farming for their livelihoods. But the archaeological record is full of evidence for ancient games, indicating  that the desire for entertainment is a basic human need with a long history.

Image from Rollefson, G. (1992). A Neolithic Game Board from ʿAin Ghazal, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 286, 1-5

This limestone game board from ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan, dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C, with an uncalibrated radiocarbon date of 5870 +/-240 b.c. (That’s nearly 8,000 years ago!) While we may not understand how games such as this were played in antiquity, we can identify with the activities and motivations objects like this represent. And that’s an essential lesson in archaeology–human history can be both terribly alien and hauntingly familiar, but ultimately, we are not so far removed from the past.

Week 2: Making Fire

In the first practical module, students tackled the most essential skill of the ancient world: making fire. This turned out to be an exercise in teamwork, frustration, and despair.

The students were provided with boards and sticks. Using their hands, they attempted to create fire through friction. Some teams traded stick-spinning duties whenever a team member got tired; others traded off every ten seconds, in order to maintain the same speed of rotation without exhausting themselves. Students experimented with using notched wood, various types of tinder, and steadying blocks on top of the spinning dowels. Despite over an hour of work, endless creativity, and a lot of teamwork, no one managed to produce fire. All of the groups produced heat and smoke, but the process broke down when they attempted to spark the tinder.

We’re not entirely sure why the experiment failed. Friction fire-making is a difficult skill to master–it may have simply been too hard to complete successfully the first time around. Perhaps the wood was the wrong type (the boards were cedar, but the dowels were an indeterminate wood from the highly period-appropriate source of Home Depot). Maybe the undergraduates had difficulty because they didn’t have calluses to protect their hands from the friction.

Despite the lack of fire, we don’t count this experiment a failure. Instead, we’ve begun thinking about what to do next time: Different types of wood? Experimenting with a bow? We’re determined to make fire by the end of the semester, and we’ll be modifying the experiment until we find a method that works.

Week 3: Making Mudbricks

Our next experiment involved making mudbricks on campus. Mudbricks were the staple building block of the ancient Near East. These rectangular blocks often contained mud, sand, clay, and a temper (such as straw or grass) to strengthen and hold the brick together. Houses constructed of mudbrick tend to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and the materials are easy to find and fairly simple to combine to create the bricks. Mudbricks are not an entirely ancient concept–just think of the adobe construction still used in the American Southwest.

We decided to make our own mudbricks using alluvial soil (generously donated from a USC construction site), straw, and water. For this module, the students split into groups to create wooden molds for the bricks, mix the mud with straw, pour the mixture into the molds, and stamp the bricks with a unique signature.

Students construct wooden molds

The students used their feet as mixing tools, a process that was messy but effective.

An important thing to remember: Make sure to create the stamp lettering in reverse so it reads correctly once you have pressed it into the brick. Thankfully, the students figured this out pretty quickly.

Utilizing the stamp:

This week was a lot of fun, and the mudbricks turned out much better than the fire-making! The bricks have now dried, and we just need to decide what to construct with them.

Week 4: Pottery

For this module, we visited the USC Fine Arts ceramic laboratory, where professor Karen Koblitz gave us a fascinating and interactive lesson in pottery production. The class split into groups and rotated between two stations. At the first station, Professor Koblitz taught students how to hand-model their own oil lamps, toasting trays, and figurines. They learned that figurines need to be hollowed out after a certain thickness, or else they will explode in the kiln. Among the undergraduates’ creations were stylized animals and a somewhat incongruous snowman–what would future archaeologists make of that particular offering?

Oil lamps, trays, and figurines. Can you spot the snowman?

The second station involved coiling pots and learning about burnishing from Tim Linden, one of our very own archaeology majors. Keeping the coil pots uniformly shaped and preventing them from collapsing was surprisingly difficult, but the students produced a few (slightly lopsided) vessels.  Others attempted to burnish pots that Tim has created for a later brewing experiment. Burnishing involves rubbing the surface of the clay to close the pores and produce a smooth, glossy surface. This can be done with a variety of tools–cloth, leather, spoons, stones. We will be using these pots in our brewing experiments (both burnished and unburnished), testing the levels of liquid retention and bacteria growth during the fermentation process. Will the burnished pots be better beer containers? Our suspicion is that they will, but we won’t know for sure until we conduct the experiment.

Students tried using stones to burnish the pottery vessels

Week 5: Cheese-Making

This was probably the most successful of the experiments, as each group went home with a delicious chunk of mozzarella, but it was also the experiment that strayed the furthest from ancient methods. With the majority of experiments, we have tried to stay relatively close to the ancient materials and techniques, but constraints of time, space, and material resulted in us using metal cooking pots, microwaves, and store-bought ingredients to manufacture the cheese. Nevertheless, the experiment gave students a general idea of what cheese-making would have been like, and the students realized how much more time-consuming the process would have been without the aid of modern technology and ingredients.


So what have students learned from the first five weeks of Human Survival: Learning from the Past? The general conclusion is that things took much longer in the past than they do now and required far more work. We’re used to having our needs provided for by others, the information or goods we need accessible with just a click or the touch of a button. And yet despite all our technological abilities, our knowledge and experience, we were unable to do something so basic as making fire. It makes one wonder: Who first discovered how to light friction fires or how to produce cheese? How much trial and error went into forming and firing the first pottery? How hard would life have been in the past, when simply surviving required so much manual labor and time?

We can’t help but question exactly how well we would have survived in ancient times. I suspect if the FSEM-180 class was suddenly dropped 8,000 years in the past (using our handy archaeology time machine), many of the students would have difficulty providing for even the most basic needs of food and shelter. But perhaps not–learning is a process, after all, and who knows what they’ll be able to do by the end of the semester?

-Sarah H


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