28th May 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Story of oldest industry in the isles is well told by authors

Kleber: Shetland’s Oldest Industry, Shetland Soapstone since Prehistory. Compiled and edited by A K Foster and V E Turner. Published by Shetland Heritage Publica­tions, £30.

This book provides a compre­hensive account of 30 years of research on the quarrying and use of Shetland soapstone. Also known as steatite, soapstone is a meta­morphic rock, composed of the mineral talc, a hydrated magnesium sulphate, and varying quantities of other minerals.

The Shetland dialect word kleber is derived from the Old Norse “kle”, meaning a loom-weight stone and berg, a stone.

The modern Norwegian word for a stone is the same word, kleber. Soapstone’s essential qualities are softness, making it easy to shape and carve, combined with the property of becoming harder and more resilient after exposure to fire, and expanding very little during heating. These properties have ensured a long history of this rock being fashioned into various artefacts. In Shetland, there is evidence of worked soapstone from prehistoric times to the medieval period, with a peak in popularity during the Viking period.

The book is divided into 12 chapters, each of which has been contributed by various experts, and is illustrated throughout with colour and black and white photo­graphs, maps, diagrams and line drawings. Steatite deposits are found throughout the North Atlantic region as well as in Shetland. A map of Shetland and a detailed geological gazetteer provides information on the steatite outcrops found here – 23 sites in total, with the majority in Unst.

The next chapter looks at identifying important steatite areas by using place names. Chrono­logically, steatite quarrying and usage has been divided up into early prehistoric times (Neolithic to the early Iron Age), Bronze Age, Middle and late Iron Age (500BC to 800AD), and the Viking and Norse period. There is also a chapter on the use of soapstone as a temper in pottery, a substance which is added to the clay to help steam escape during firing, thus lessening the risk of cracking during the process.

The earliest steatite artefacts found in Shetland are beads dating to the late fourth millennium BC. In early prehistory, steatite was mainly used to carve four-sided and circular vessels of varying sizes, as well as beads and funerary urns found in Bronze Age cists and cairns.

During the Iron Age, the rock was used to make objects such as simple cup-and-wick lamps, rings, bracelets, spindle whorls, beads and gaming counters. With the advent of the Vikings, large steatite vessels appear, as steatite played a very important role in Scandinavian culture, being widely used in Norway.

The magnificent 12th century Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim was constructed from steatite. A chapter is devoted to this very important period in Shetland describing the soapstone vessels found, and also the appearance of other artefacts such as bakeplates, miniature querns, hanging lamps and loom weights.

The following chapters detail archaeological excavations and the artefacts found at Catpund, Cun­ningsburgh, and at Clibberswick in Unst. Advances in science can now be used as a tool to reveal the origins of some artefacts and this may prove to be of considerable archaeological potential.

The final chapter describes how ancient steatite-working skills and tools have been used by the Living History demonstrators, Keith Prosser and Tony Sherratt, at Old Scatness.

The book provides a fascinating history of soapstone and, as stated on the back cover: “This volume contains the story so far …”

Kleber: Shetland’s Oldest Industry, Shetland Soapstone since Prehistory will be avail- able from The Shetland Times Bookshop.

Joyce JM Garden