Soapstone vessels – Medieval Cooking Pots
If you were to cook porridge, stew, or something similar in the Middle Ages, it was likely that you would take a soapstone pot to place over the fire and cook the food in. Soapstone pots, or soapstone (steatite) in general, was very practical and and were for this reason popular from the Viking Age and throughout the medieval period. Many fragments from these vessels have been found in medieval Oslo.
A fragmented soapstone vessel found in Oslogate 6, medieval Oslo. Photo: Guro Koksvik Lund.
Soapstone is a type of stone that is suitable for carving various types of artifacts. This is because soapstone is ‘soft’ and ‘easy’ to cut and carve. It’s recognized by its slightly greyish-green color, often interspersed with a rust-like hue. Furthermore, it has a somewhat slippery texture, hence the name, and it can actually feel a bit soapy when you touch it. Another name for it in Norwegian is fettstein, fatty stone. Some soapstone specimens are so soft that you can leave an impression in them by pressing your fingernail into them. It’s therefore easy to understand that soapstone artifacts were sought after and used both in the Viking Age and the subsequent Middle Ages.
A versatile type of stone
There are findings of many types of soapstone artifacts from both the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. We have building stones, loom weights, molds, oil lamps, line sinkers and, of course, soapstone vessels. There are different kinds of these vessels, some have rounded sides, others straight. There are soapstone pots with and without handles, some have carved grooves on the outside, some on the inside. Some pots have holes for metal handles. From the excavation site of Oslogate 6, we have over 540 finds of soapstone pots. These are fragments and we have to assume a few stem from the same pots. This is a challenge to puzzle out today though. Most of these fragments have traces of soot on the outside which stems from the cooking process, while a few fragments have more damage due to burns, likely because of one of the many fires in medieval Oslo.
Different types of soapstone fragments from Oslogate 6, medieval Oslo. Photo: Guro Koksvik Lund
I the town as well as on the countryside
Soapstone vessels were popular goods for exporting in the Viking Age, and these artifacts were often used as grave goods. In the subsequent middle ages, however, soapstone vessels seem to have become more of a consumable item, but they were not exported any more. Men in Norway, pots made of soapstone were used in towns as well as in the countryside. Soapstone was easily accessible in Norway and there were many quarries to be found. When looking at these quarries today, it’s easy to see what’s been produced because these vessels were often taken straight from the berg and then processed into a finished item.
An example of this comes from the Åsåren Quarry in Oppland (central Norway). We have several soapstone artifacts from this quarry in the museum collection. Most of them are soapstone vessels in various stages of production. These vessels have different shapes; some with handles, some without. We have some vessels that have been partially hollowed out and some that haven’t been hollowed out at all. What we can see are the markings that have been made with a drawing compass to show how thick the wall should be.
Unfinished soapstone vessel from Åsåren, Central Norway. Photo: Mårten Teigen.
Traces of food
More than sixty fragments of soapstone vessels preserved from the excavation site of Oslogate 6 contain traces of food. These organic remains have been burned onto the inside of the vessels. What is interesting here is that these remains can help shed a light on what was actually cooked in these pots, and how.
We have begun taking out samples from soapstone pots that stem from the early 1100s to the 16th century. These burned food remains are for the most part on the inside of the pots. Preliminary results suggests that other things than porridge was cooked in these vessels.
The residues are now being investigated using biochemical analyzes at the Laboratoire Nicolas Garnier in France. It will be very exciting to see what these fragments can tell us about the medieval diet.
Fragment of soapstone vessel with residues on the inside. Photo: Guro Koksvik Lund
Landmark, Torbjørn. Report: Arkeologisk undersøkelse av Åsåren Kleberbrudd. 1995.
Lossious, Siri Myrvoll, F. Klebermaterialet. I "De arkeologiske utgravninger i Gamlebyen, Oslo, bind 2: Feltene "Oslogate 3 og 7". Bebyggelsesrester og funngrupper". 1979.
Olsen, Ole Mikal. Medieval Fishing Tackle from Bergen and Borgund: The Bryggen Papers, Main Series No 5. 2004.
Universitetsmuseenes gjenstandsbaser 2019. Elektronisk dokument. Hentet fra http://www.unimus.no/arkeologi/forskning/index.php
About Food in the Middle Ages
On this blog, we’ll talk about what kind of food people ate in the Norwegian Middle Ages by shining a light on local cultivation and recipes. We will show results from the research laboratories and exciting artifacts from our collections that tell of a diverse food culture, especially in the medieval towns, which consisted of so much more than just meat and porridge.