Medieval Soapstone Quarry

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On the excursion during the Sachsensymposium in Trondheim last month we visited Slipsteinsberget (“Grindstone Hill”). Not only did we visit the place, but the entire conference (some of whose participants were in their 70s) climbed around the whole hill (rain-sodden, wooded and steep) like mountain goats. Our guide was the charming Bodil Østerås, head of Egge Museum. Her 2002 Augmented Master’s Thesis (No. hovedoppgave) Slipsteinsberget i Sparbu : kva eit klebersteinsbrot kan fortelje om gamle steinhoggartradisjonar deals mainly with the site we visited.

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The hill consists mainly of soapstone, talcum and serpentine. Indeed, there is no mineral in it that is actually useful for grindstones. So then, why the name? Probably because an entire hillside untouched by later quarries is covered by curious circular scars where people have obviously extracted stone. There are also mine tunnels whose insides are covered with the scars. They look like they may have something to do with wheel-shaped grindstones. But in fact, they’re from Late Iron Age and Medieval soapstone pot production.

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Soapstone pots are ubiquitous on Norwegian Viking Period settlement sites and coeval sites elsewhere connected to Norway by trade. The material (which is partly talcum) is soft enough to be carved with woodworking tools, and it has excellent thermal properties. To make a pot, a stone carver would carve a pot-sized little dome out of the hillside and then lop the dome off before hollowing its inside out. This left a characteristic round scar. There are also a few surfaces with rectangular scarring where building stone has probably been taken. Much of the hillside is hidden by enormous spoil dumps from the quarrying, so there is most likely much evidence for how the work was done to be found underneath. Bodil has trial-trenched a house foundation on top of a dump and got a 15th-century radiocarbon date.

Update 6 October: Dear Reader Brian points out that there’s a remarkably similar 1st Millennium soapstone vessel quarry in Newfoundland, belonging to the Dorset Culture.

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7 thoughts on “Medieval Soapstone Quarry

  1. These pictures are much “cosier” than the ones you’ve been showing lately about you guys working and digging on grey acres.

    Those rocks look magnificent 🙂 🙂

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  2. Norwegian people are cosy, koselig, but the country’s landscape is in fact mainly breathtaking in its beauty. Mountains and streams and fiords, mountains and streams and fiords, and the odd emerald valley with a stave church.

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  3. Martin, I guess that a comment from me could fit here? And also when I made this mtdna-test I was told that I had relatives (from 1600) in this area…(but my haplogroup is older than that womans there…)

    It look fantastic. All those holes. If noone had investigated it, people could have thought that it was natural?

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  4. Slipsteinsberget looks remarkably similar to the Dorset soapstone quarry site at Fleur-de-Lys in Newfoundland. It sounds as if the Norse and the Dorset employed the same quarrying technique and produced very similar soapstone containers. At the Fleur-de-Lys quarry they have documented some 1000 removal scars (including some where the removal was left unfinished). You can see some great photos of this quarry at the Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program – check out their galleries. (http://www.arts.mun.ca/nahop/Gallery_Pages/Fleur-de-Lys_Gallery.html) John Erwin of Memorial University of Newfoundland also has an online archaeology report of the Fleur-de-Lys excavations. (http://www.johnerwin.org/fdl.htm).

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  5. As per Brian’s comment: Looks just like the Archaic ones in Georgia/Carolina, too. Same technique, make a mushroom, hack it loose, hollow it out.

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  6. I looked at the Dorset culture up in the arctic north. Seems to be a very intersting culture, different from the inuits as I understand. I read that there was an idea that the people might had come over the frosen atlantic ocean ice. Could be very interesting to know the mtDNA haplogroups of them, because one of the oldest mtDNA in Europe, the UKgroup, is very closely related to one of the indians group, to mtDNA haplogroup B. They both come from mtDNA R.

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