This summer Tom Heldal (Geological Survey of Norway) and I went on one of our occasional trips to look for old quarries. The aim was to find a marble quarry by the farms Lenn and Fröset in Sparbu close to Steinkjer in Central Norway that allegedly had been used for Nidaros Cathedral in the Middle Ages (AD 1000-1537).
Small marble quarries of the 19th-20th century were known in the area and these were our primary target. Easily found, we were astonished to walk directly into a large, unknown soapstone quarry just beside the modern marble quarries. There were many traces of production of soapstone vessels and it is quite likely that the quarry was in production already by the Viking Age (AD 800-1000) or even before since it resembles another, famous soapstone quarry (“Slipsteinsberget”) some 10 km away.
But still no trace of old marble – until we carefully started lifting up moss in the dense forest. And there it was, 50 m from the other quarries: A white marble that splits to thin plates, just as they were found on the old floors of the cathedral and as medieval tomb slabs. Clearly, the properties of the marble imply that it was not necessary to open a larger quarry, since stone could almost be picked up from the ground, using simple wedging, of which there were many traces.
On further investigation we found many small depressions and ridges in the forest that indicate a quite substantial quarry landscape. And a little away from the marble, there turned up another rock, garnet micaschist, with weak traces of millstone production. However, only careful mapping, clearing, excavation and provenance studies can give an idea of size and significance – and dating.
Whatever future studies may show, the area was clearly an important stone production centre – probably from very early on. This has implications for how we interpret procurement of building stone in the Middle Ages – in a country that did not have any stone building traditions before the advent of Christianity in the 10th century. Yet, in addition to obvious technology transfer from England etc. (the architecture of medieval stone buildings in Central Norway is largely English-inspired), procurement may have rested on earlier traditions related to production of soapstone vessels and other items, such as querns and millstone.
This is nothing new, many soapstone vessel quarries across Norway were put in use for building stone in the Middle Ages. But it is the first time that we may have found a multi-purpose quarry landscape, involving several stone types, with traditions upon which medieval procurement rested.