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7 - Investigating the Origins of Steatite Vessels across the Viking Diaspora

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Tom Horne
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Elizabeth Pierce
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

Soapstone, or steatite, is one of the more iconic identifiers of Viking material culture within the North Atlantic region. The stone was used to manufacture many essential and everyday items which accompanied the Norwegian migrants of the landnám. It is no coincidence that a distribution map of recorded soapstone finds shadows closely the areas settled by Norse pioneers across the North Atlantic region (see Figure 7.1, below). The Viking diaspora has been described by Jesch as having origins in the migrations which characterise the period but transcending them in time ‘… through linguistic and cultural contacts assiduously maintained throughout the Viking world for centuries after the migration’ (2015: 81). Artefacts carved from soapstone remain an ongoing characteristic of the region throughout the period of settlement and the centuries that followed. As a stone with limited provenance and excellent odds for archaeological survival, soapstone artefacts provide a useful tool for the study of migration, settlement and contact across the diaspora.

Following initial migrations and settlement, locally available outcrops of this useful stone, known as kleber in Norse tongue, became known and were in use in Shetland by at least the 9th century. This was not the first time Shetland’s soapstone resource was utilised for the manufacture of vessels and other objects; examples of use are recorded from the Neolithic and into the later Iron Age (see Forster and Turner 2009). At the time of Viking settlement, the use of soapstone by the local population was limited to smaller portable objects, such as lamps, beads and whorls (Forster 2009: 48), and lacked the larger vessels which the Norwegian incomers brought with them. Viking pioneers would have encountered evidence of quarrying at soapstone outcrops, perhaps including spoil heaps and manufacturing debris created over centuries of use. The use of those same outcrops throughout Viking and Norse periods in Shetland has most likely obliterated any evidence of earlier activity. Place-name evidence linked to the word kleber and variant terms attests to a comprehensive knowledge of the location of outcrops across the archipelago (see Brooke-Freeman 2009: 18).

The earliest dated examples of Viking period and Shetland-manufactured vessels were recorded at Norwick, Shetland, dated to 690–750 (Ballin Smith 2013: 229), although the early date was viewed as controversial by some (Turner 2013: 234).

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 98 - 111
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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