Site Overview

See where the Vikings quarried soapstone for their own use and for trade

The Vikings used natural materials including soapstone (steatite, also known in Shetland as kleber) for cooking pots and, later, for baking plates, as well as for smaller objects such as loom and fishing weights, lamps, spindle whorls, etc. Soapstone, as its name suggests, is soft and easy to work when fresh, but it hardens up when placed in a fire.

Shetland has many outcrops of steatite, the largest being Catpund, Cunningsburgh, where the quarries extend from the coast east of the main road, to the hills on the west. Here the workings are very clear along the burn to the west of the road. Chisel marks are preserved on many faces, together with the impressions left when blocks were prised off the rock for shaping into bowls and baking plates.

An area has been excavated, higher up the burn, which has enabled archaeologists to understand the process of manufacture. Soapstone from Catpund seems to have been traded widely throughout Scotland, from which it is largely absent.

Exploitation of localised sources of steatite was found to be important to the mixed economy of some of the farms excavated in Unst.

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