From Homeland to Home; Using Soapstone to Map Migration and Settlement in the North Atlantic
Chapter, Peer reviewed
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One of the most characteristic features of Viking material culture is the use of soapstone (steatite) to make vessels, lamps and other artefacts. As soapstone was a readily available material in the Viking homelands, the inclusion of these characteristic objects with items transported by pioneer Norwegian migrants to the North Atlantic is likely. As settlements were established across the North Atlantic region during the Viking period other sources of this stone would have become available, for example in Shetland and Greenland. In this context a central question arises about the identification of those sources during the different phases of the Viking period. This paper presents some of the findings from two independent studies which have combined into a single project, Homeland to home, one concerning the morphology/typology of soapstone artefacts, the other applying analytical techniques to determine the origin of such artefacts. Based particularly on displaced artefacts found at Viking period sites in northern Britain (York to Orkney), Ireland, Faroe and Iceland, the main attributes of seven typological classes have been identified, allowing hypotheses to be proposed about the likely source and chronological floruit of each class. Some of these hypotheses have been tested by ICP-MS analysis (for rare earth elements) and to a lesser extent by portable XRF for semiquantitative analysis of major, minor and trace elements. Results are presented for a number of quarries on Shetland and south east Norway and artefacts from Shetland (Sandwick, Unst), York, Orkney (Quoygrew, Westray), Norway (Kaupang) and the Faroes. For several reasons including the still Limited size of the quarry chemical database, positive assignments of origin to individual artefacts remain difficult to propose on the basis of chemical composition. On the other hand, more progress is made in a process of association: identifying groups of artefacts that are likely to have similar origin owing to their similarity of composition and then correlating those groups with their typological membership.