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Publication Account

Date 1997

Event ID 1017082

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/event/1017082

The steatite quarries cover a very large area, almost 1km long, from the shore below and to the east of the main road, rising on either side of the Catpund Burn to its headwaters in the hills to the west. As you climb up beside the burn, you will notice traces of quarrying both in the bed of the burn and on the rock outcrops on either side. Most obvious are the projecting blanks for vessels that were never removed and the round and rectangular depressions where such blanks were removed (see colour photograph on p.23 ), and the rock faces are covered with chisel marks. The method used in manufacturing steatite vessels was to carve out the rough shape of the bottom and sides of the vessel as if it were upside own on the rock, to detach this blank and to finish shaping its exterior and hollowing out the inside. The talcose rock is relatively easy to carve, being quite a soft stone that is soapy to the touch, hence its other name, soapstone, and it was used for a great number of purposes from early prehistoric times onwards. It is also known in Shetland as deber from the Norse term kieber.

Higher up the burn is an excellent area of quarrying, exposed by excavation and now fenced off with a stile for access and an information board.

Excavations at Jarlshof (no. 39), some 24km to the south, produced a variety of steatite vessels that can be matched by the blanks and discarded waste in the quarries, and steatite grit used to strengthen the clay for pottery vessels demonstrates that steatite was being exploited by the beginning of the second millennium BC. Steatite was being used most extensively in the Viking Age and early medieval times, when round, oval and square vessels were in fashion consecutively from the 9th to 13th centuries, as well as steatite line-sinkers for fishing, spindle whorls, beads and lamps (small oval dishes with a hole at either end so that they could be suspended, the wick immersed in oil). At this period the industry must have been organised on a mass market, commercial scale, with its products being exported not only all over Shetland but also to Orkney and Iceland, which lack any source of steatite.

Steatite outcrops elsewhere in Shetland as well, and there are traces of ancient quarries both on Fetlar and on Unst, particularly at Clibberswick on Unst (HP 651121) where near vertical cliff-faces were somehow worked in what must have been terrifying conditions. Steatite was also very extensively exploited in Norway itself, and work is currently underway to establish methods of petrological analysis which will allow the origin of steatite artefacts to be identified more precisely than is possible at the moment. Variety in the composition of the rock within a single deposit makes recognition of an object from one particular quarry very difficult.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Shetland’, (1997).

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