Fire-Hardened Spear

The oldest examples of spears from prehistory were those found in an open cast Lignite (low grade coal) mine Schöningen, Germany in 1995. The Four wooden spears found by Hartmut Thieme of the Institut für Denkmalpflege in Hannover, are believed to be from 400,000 BCE. The 2m spears were found in soil whose acids had been neutralised by a high concentration of chalk near the coal pit. Early interpretations suggested the spears were javelins based on the tapered form of the spear tip. Experimentation with the use of replicas and modern javelin throwers has tipped the spears to be javelins. However arguments over the shape and form of the shoulders on H. neanderthalensis and its likely ancestor H. heidelbergensis has indicated they would struggle to throw projectiles in an over-arm motion. This of course casts doubt on the theory that the Schöningen spears were javelins as their date means they were likely made by H. heidelbergensis. Other arguments have focused on the sheer length of the spears being to too long for H. heidelbergensis to throw, being smaller on average than anatomically modern humans.

It is worth noting also there have been doubts over the piercing power of the spears if thrown as wooden tips would not have anywhere near the piercing abilities of a stone tipped spear. This therefore suggests a huge amount of extra throwing power would be required to cause any significant damage, there is space for thorough experimental investigation to determine this.   

 One of the spears found was much shorter than the other and had points at both ends it was thought to be a thrusting spear, but due to its much smaller size may have been a throwing stick or finishing ‘spear’ once the prey had initially fallen. The spears were found along with stone tools and the butchered remains of about 20 horses (one of the horse remains found still had a spear sticking out of its pelvis). Environmental evidence has indicated the hominins may have been waiting in nearby rushes until the herd of horses were near enough to be charged at without time or space to escape. This would fall into place with the theory of the spears being for thrusting rather than javelins as the rushes would have provided adequate cover allowing the hominins to be close enough. The nearby pool of water (surrounded by the rushes) may have helped in covering the scent of the hominins from the horses.

Earlier in 1948 the Palaeolithic Lehringen spear was found in Germany and was recorded as showing signs of deliberate fire-hardening - ‘well sharpened with stone knives and then hardened in the fire’. Made from Yew and around 2.39m long, the spear was found amongst the ribs of a straight-tusked elephant and has been assumed to be a thrusting weapon dating from the last interglacial 125,000 years ago. Alongside this, the middle Pleistocene site of Boxgrove near Chichester yielded more horse remains, one scapula appeared to show damage possibly caused by a fire hardened spear. It would have been very difficult to cause such damage through throwing a spear (who's piercing abilities have already been contested). More likely, as at Schöningen the horse may have been charged at from cover or surrounded by the hunting group to prevent escape.

Experimental work has shown the actual production of the tapered tip requires continuous a steady scraping of the tip with a notch or scraper, tools both often presence in Clactonian (flake based tools) assemblages. Allowing the spear to be burned away and scraped at the tip creates a wider point that would have very limited piercing power but a very wide trauma area. Personal experimentation in using handaxes to manufacture fire hardened spears highlights handaxes as poor woodworking tools in comparison to their butchery power. From this it is possible to theorise that Clactonian assemblages (first found and associated with the Clacton fire hardened spear tip) were orientated towards woodworking (and other tasks).

For our understanding of middle Pleistocene hominins this kind of evidence sheds rare light on the hunting strategies and prowess on individuals general only represented by the occasional handaxe or flake. In situ evidence from hunting sites such as Schöningen and Boxgrove gives vast amounts of evidence that would otherwise be absent from the archaeological record. The advanced hunting strategies of H. heidelbergensis on show at the sites discussed may be a strong indication of the reason why middle Pleistocene cultures such as the Acheulean (generally handaxe focused) and Clactonian (generally flake based tools, although some handaxes have been found) were successful through the frequent climatic changes of the lower Palaeolithic. 

Oakley, K. P., Andrews, P., Keeley, L. H. u. Clark, J. D. 1977. A reappraisal of the Clacton spearpoint. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 43, S. 13–30
Stringer, C and Andrews, P. 2011. The complete world of Human Evolution. London: Thames and Hudson
Stringer, C. 2007. Homo Britannicus. London: Penguin
Pitts, M and Roberts, M. 1998. Fair Weather Eden. London: Arrow Books Ltd
Voormolen, B. 2008. Ancient Hunters, Modern Butchers. Schöningen 13II–4, a Kill–Butchery Site Dating from the Northwest European Lower Palaeolithic. Journal of Taphonomy 6 (2) (2008), 71-247

Materials & Tools:

  • 2m length of "green" hardwood
  • Flint scraper or knife
  • Small fire (select a safe place for this and have something to extinguish the fire close by)

    Note: The purpose of this process is to apply heat to slowly remove moisture from the wood to make it more durable. As an open fire would normally be used for this, it is not recommended for young children.

Select a straight length of green wood, that is around 3-4cm in diameter. Use hardwood if possible (such as oak or ash) for a blade-shaped spear point - softer woods can be used for cone-shaped points.

A green wood, cut or broken from a living tree with a high moisture content, is less likely to burn and more likely to harden. In situations where only dead or dry wood is available, soak the wood in water before attempting fire-hardening.

Although not necessary for the end result, I decided to remove the bark using a flint scraper before starting the hardening process

Typically only the pointed end of the spear is fire hardened, however the entire shaft of the spear can be processed in the same way, if required.

Constantly rotate the spear while holding it over the fire. Alternatively place the spear into the ashes where there is less oxygen to reduce the risk of burning.

Inspect the spear frequently to make sure the wood is not too burned or scorched, before starting to shape the point. The effect of the fire boils the water that occurs naturally in the sap. This causes the wood to dry out and also starts to crystallise the minerals that are in the sap to form a sort of varnish that increases the hardness of the point. 

Carve the point using a flint scraper and knife (or use a metal knife) to shape the spear point as required. Repeat the process of holding over the fire to help remove more wood, when sharpening the point.

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