When archaeologists discover cylindrical objects made of stone or clay in the remains of ancient dwellings, they often identify them, when no practical use seems apparent, as phallic symbols used in some sort of fertility rites.

Firedrills or phalli? Photo from Plos One, by Gabi LaronSuch was the case with a variety of artifacts from the Pottery Neolithic period in Israel’s Jordan Valley. Early residents, known as the “Yarmukian Culture,” lived along the Jordan’s banks nearly 8 millennia ago — almost 5,000 years before the rise of Israelite culture. A number of similar objects found across the region have previously been identified as phallic symbols, clay pestles, or simply “cylindrical clay objects.”

Note circular marks on the conical end. Plos One photo by Nabi Loren.Several years ago, an assemblage of cylindrical or slightly cone-shaped objects found at the Pottery Neolithic site Sha’ar Hagolan (just south of the Sea of Galilee) was exhibited with clay figurines at the Israel Museum, and identified as an example of cultic or phallic objects.

When Professor Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem saw the exhibit, she looked more closely, got permission to examine the objects, and suggested a different interpretation.

Objects from Kfar HaHoresh, interpreted as possible fire boards. Plos One photo by Gabi Loren. Goren-Inbar noticed that the conical end of the objects showed striations consistent with circular friction, and that they were darker on the end, consistent with heat. Soon she proposed that the objects were not representative phalli at all, but fire drills — one ancient version of matches. Circular marks and breakage patterns were consistent with the objects being used with a bow and a ceramic or stone fireboard with indentations to match the pointed end of the rod.

Goren-Inbar makes a compelling case (full publication in the open-access online journal Plos One) that will likely lead to a reinterpretation of similar objects from other sites.

Just another reminder that things aren’t always what they seem … or that there’s more than one way to start a fire.

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