Earliest Matches Had 'Phallic' Shape Too

Cylinders like this one discovered at ancient sites, including an 8,000-year-old Israeli site, were used as part of a system for creating fire called a fire drill, researchers say.
Cylinders like this one discovered at an 8,000-year-old Israeli site were used to make fire, researchers say. (Image credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

When small cylinders of clay and stone turned up at ancient archaeological sites, researchers described them as "phallic" and theorized the pointy-tipped cylinders had religious significance.

But regardless of the resemblance they bear to male genitalia, these cylinders had a practical purpose: They were the world's earliest-known matches, an Israeli research team concluded after examining one of the sites holding these "early matches."

After examining cylinders found at an 8,000-year-old site in a Neolithic village called Sha'ar HaGolan in modern-day Israel, the team determined they were rotated against another surface to generate friction, which would generate heat and, ultimately, fire.

This system, called a fire drill, relies on drill bits — the role the researchers believe these cylinders played — and a fire board that also holds tinder. Drills and boards have shown up in archaeological sites around the world, including Egypt, Europe and South America. They have also been used by people such as Australian aborigines and American Indians.   

Cylinders from this site were on average 1.85 inches (47 millimeters) long and up to 0.6 inches (14.1 mm) in diameter. Their conical sometimes darkened tips, lack of decoration, grooves and other evidence of wear indicate these were bits used in fire drills, write the researchers, led by Naama Goren-Inbar of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in a study published online Aug. 1 in the journal PLoS ONE.

While the cylinders have also turned up at other sites from roughly the same era, stone blocks with sockets into which the bits may have fit have turned up at an earlier site called Kfar Hahoresh, the researchers write, adding that surface grooves connecting the sockets may have been used to house tinder. 

But phallic advocates take heart, "ethnographically, in many societies the fire drill and the fireboard are considered to represent the male and female sex organs, respectively," they write.

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Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.