Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ground Fires vs Containments - History vs Modern Realities

Since it has been coming up a lot in the last month, I thought I would expand a bit on 'fire boxes':
Lara left this comment on "Canada Post " Helps " Small Business ???":

" In many areas here in the states, there are rules where only off-the-ground fires are allowed, if they are allowed at all. I believe the brazier is a compromise to allow use of the tripods without having to result to a propane cook stove for a hot meal."
Lara is referring to this specific image:

Recently, I have also been asked to quote on making up the camp set below:

Now, both of these are very clearly MODERN attempts to address a MODERN problem - No ground fires allowed at a site.
There are two primary reasons that this modern day restriction is being more and more frequently imposed.
Here in North America, there is increasing problems with wild fires. Without droning on about climate change, lack of field skills in an urban population, rampant liability problems - lets just say the intent is to put any kind of solid fuel 'open' fire into a flame proof containment. Regardless of the 'real' reason, the basic principle is to increase safety.
More common to Europe is the second reason to restrict ground fires. This is to prevent damage to archaeological ground.

Now, for this discussion to proceed, we all have to admit that this restriction on ground fires, and any equipments produced to take the place of ground fires, is a completely modern concept and invention.
(I don't want to get into a pissing match where someone quotes some town ordinance from London in 1100 that states how many buckets of water you needed to keep on hand in your thatch house beside your cooking fire - ok?)

This discussion also serves as one of the standard illustrations I use in lecture when I'm talking about decision points made by modern living history groups.

Now, I'm going to be using the standard solution developed by the (excellent) English group Regia Anglorum. Their modern day problem was not disturbing archaeologically sensitive ground at those wonderful sites they commonly use for presentations.
To quote the Regia Living History Exhibit Regulations:
Many sites are archaeologically sensitive and firepits are not allowed.
In these cases fires must be in a container and raised above the
ground. Fireboxes and altar fires are both acceptable.
Members should check permissible constructional materials/techniques
with the LHEC before committing money to their fire containers.
To their credit, they cast around and tried to find some kind of historical reference to provide a solution. What they came up with is this:

This is one of the small side images contained within the Bayeaux Tapestry. Since the tapestry was itself created in the later part of the 1000's, its likely as close to a Viking Age reference as anyone could possibly come up with. Like many of the images from the Tapestry however, it is limited in detail, has huge problems with scale, and the 'cartoon' nature of the illustrations must always be taken into account.

Considering all the potential problems with the source material, this is an image of a standard Regia interpretation of that historic image turned into a modern working system:

This is basically a wooden box, the frame held together with slots and pegs so it packs flat to put in the car trunk. Inside the box either goes several pails of dirt / sand, or a layer of bricks then covered over with a thin layer of sand. In either case, the equipment is fairly heavy (unless you can gather local dirt), but certainly packs down very well. It is also completely fire proof, and does absolutely no damage to the ground it sits on. In this sample, the use of 2 x 8 planks for the side boards means a pair of holes can support the (again very modern) metal pot supports. (see way too much commentary on the use of metal tripods in Viking Age presentations)

Now this is a very good solution to the problem of restriction on ground fires. It does not jar the eye in a historic camp. Its easy to build, easy to transport. I have operated a iron smelting furnace with a similar kind of arrangement (at plus 2600 F) with NO damage to the underlaying ground.

But remember it still remains a MODERN solution to a MODERN problem.

At DARC, we were faced with a similar problem at our presentation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in conjunction with 'Vikings - North Atlantic Saga'. Not only no ground fires, we were not allowed any use of solid fuels. We did still want to undertake food preparation demonstrations. This is what I came up with:
Admittedly, not a close up! The ring of stones surrounds a modern propane burner. The 'bucket' behind the two hanging pots is a fake, which enclosed a standard propane cylinder. From any distance from the 'fire' you could not see the enclosed burner. (Note the use of the more historically accurate WOODEN tripod.)

Living History is always 'The Art of the Possible'.


DHBoggs said...

The central hearth in the Hofstadir longhouse - a typical rectangular arrangement - used large, carefully selected and well fitted rectangular stones on both the base and the sides (I was one of the excavators). While this is an interior hearth,constructing one outdoors would not be an egregious historical error, in my opinion. One could transport the stones and assemble the the "box" in a matter of minutes. If well made it would provide all the same protection as your wooden boxes filled with dirt and be far truer to the period.

Liutgard of Luxeuil said...

I think that this is an example of differing approaches and purposes. I'm pretty sure that I know Lara- we're SCA and we live in Oregon. She hangs with a household that does Norsish-Nomadic stuff (she's Magyar). I mostly hang with 14th-15th c French/English folks, though I've recently been delving into 8th c Frankish study.

There is a very wide range of authenticity levels in the SCA, and authenticity means very different things to different people. Some are closer to the reenactors' ideal, of meticulously recreating actual artifacts, or things directly derived from them. Others just want stuff that looks cool- 'medieval' is optional. Most of us fall somewhere between.

Lara's folks range from periodish to very accurate. If you walk through their camp, nothing you see is likely to look egregiously modern, unless you really know what you are looking at. You, for instance, would see their brazier as modern. Most SCAdians wouldn't know the difference, and it is medievalish enough to pass. But they can have their fire at the state campground without getting hassled about it, and they can experiment with open-fire cooking. You're likely to find the women sewing or spinning while tending the fire, and this is what they enjoy doing. It also attracts people to their camp, and from there they can lure people in to textile fun. They can also say "In the Viking era we would have cooked over the fire like so or so, but we have fire restrictions, and we have to be able to pack things in the Subaru, so this is how we do it." They know what they are doing isn't period, they know what would have been done, and they are happy to explain that difference.

I, on the other hand, have serious medical issues that I have to make compromises for. My pavilion is made of a nylon that is weighted and sews up like a silk. (I can put it up myself, even with the arthritis.) And due to my asthma, cooking over an open fire is out of the question. But for me, the product is more important than the process, and my product is food, not a fire or pots. My kitchen is tucked out of view, and I use a propane stove. I know how to cook with actual fire, but I don't do it. What I can do however, is put on a formal three course feast with two burners and a roaster, and only one helper. And then I can teach about foodstuffs, humoral theory, medieval serving techniques, culinary research, recipe translation and redaction, and that Medieval Food Is Not Gross. :-)

I think that each approach is valid for its own reasons, be it yours, Lara's, or mine. It all depends on why you are doing it.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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