Many words for fire: An etymological and micromorphological consideration of combustion features in indigenous archaeological sites of Western Australia

Ingrid A.K. Ward, David E. Friesem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The word ‘fire’ encompasses an enormous variety of human activities and has diverse cultural meanings. The word hearth not only has links with fire but also has a social focus both in its Latin origins and in Australian Indigenous languages, where hearth fire is primary to all other anthropogenic fires. The importance of fire to First Nations people is reflected in the rich vocabulary of associated words, from different hearth types and fuel to the different purposes of fire in relation to cooking, medicine, ritual or management of the environment. Likewise, the archaeological expression of hearths and other combustion features is equally complex and nuanced, and can be explored on a microscale using micromorphology. Here we highlight the complexity in both language and micromorphological expressions around a range of documented and less well documented combustion features, including examples from archaeological sites in Western Australia. Our purpose is to discourage the over-use of the generalised term ‘hearth’ to describe charcoal and ash-rich features, and encourage a more nuanced study of the burnt record in a cultural context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-24
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of the Royal Society of Western Australia
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Ingrid Ward is supported by Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellowship (DE180100601). We thank the Robe River Kuruma Aboriginal Corporation (RRK), Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) and Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation (BTAC) for access to Country to sample these sites. Thanks also to Rio Tinto and Gavin Jackson CRM who facilitated access to RRK sites, and to Black Wattle Archaeology who facilitated access to PKKP sites. The CIII micromorphological sample was collected during the ARC funded Barrow Island Archaeology Project (DP130100802), facilitated by CI Peter Veth. Photomicrographs from Riwi excavation were made available to us by Dorcas Vannieuwenhuyse. We also thank Len Collard and Sean Winter for early discussion around this topic, Paul Goldberg and Maia Ponsonnet for helpful comments on a draft of this manuscript. A final thanks to the reviewers Emilie-Dotte Sarout and Lynley Wallis. We look forward to exploring this field further.

Publisher Copyright:
© Royal Society of Western Australia 2021.


  • Australia
  • Fire
  • Hearth
  • Language
  • Micromorphology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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