Every Viking owned a stone like this - and they traded massive quantities of them too
Whetstones are one of the most common finds from the Viking Age. What looks like a simple stone however, tells the tale of extensive trading systems - and perhaps even the reason for why the Vikings started raiding overseas.
At the end of the 19th century, people emptied the water out of an old quarry in Trøndelag in mid-Norway. Some thought that it might contain a large silver deposit.
But the only thing they found were lots of stones. A totally commonplace object.
Why would someone build a massive quarry to look for – and produce – ordinary stone?
“People who work with the Viking Age often deal with luxury items such as jewellery and beautiful artifacts,” says Irene Baug, an archaeologist and researcher at the University of Bergen.
“This is a stone, and it’s not even a pretty stone. But the information it is able to provide us with is truly unique,” she says.
An everyday item for a Viking
The ordinary stones were whetstones, also known as sharpening stones. They were used to, as the latter name suggests, sharpen things made of iron.
“Whetstones are among the most common items found from the Viking Age. There were so many of them,” Baug says.
Whetstones were an absolutely necessary item.
Farmers needed them for their tools, and they were used in the household. They were also used in craft activities in the cities.
Whetstones were also an important part of the equipment needed by a warrior: Viking warriors needed to sharpen their swords, axes, arrows and knives.
Unlike many of the items we have from the Viking Age – whetstones were used by everybody, warriors, craftsmen and housewives, rich and poor alike.
“These finds can tell us a lot about production, trade and contact networks from the Viking Age onwards,” Baug says.
As early as the Viking Age, they were mass-produced and distributed over great distances. Whetstones from Norway have been found in a number of countries.
The Vikings also traded in other items, Baug points out. But whereas for instance fur or animal hides have not left any traces, the whetstones are still there to tell the story.
What’s in a stone?
Baug says the stones can tell us a lot about society in the Viking Age — and even about earlier times as well.
“Large amounts of whetstones are stored in the museums, but they have not been particularly studied until the last few years,” Baug said.
And precisely there lies much of the reason why she started studying the stones herself back in 2014. Whetstones were largely unexplored territory.
“During excavations we kept finding lots of purple-coloured fine-grained whetstones, but we had no idea where they came from,” she says.
While the quarry in Eidsborg in Telemark was well-known – and the whetstones from this quarry are usually lighter grey in colour – it was only when the geologists got involved that the new site in Mostadmarka in Trøndelag was discovered.
When Norwegian archaeologists excavated the famous Gjellestad ship in 2020, a whetstone made the list of the top 12 most exiting finds from the excavation.
As the stone is light grey, the archaeologists believe it might be from the Eidsborg quarry in Telemark.
“As we believe that the Gjellestad ship is from the early days of the Viking Age, a whetstone from Eidsborg would be an important find not only to understand more about the person buried at Gjellestad, but also to understand the networks of trade he or she could access,” archaeologist Christian Løchsen Rødsrud said to ScienceNorway.no.
Norway's first export item?
There’s been a lot written about these whetstones if you search around on the internet. A common conception is that whetstones were Norway's first export item.
Baug is not so sure about that.
“People have had contact, and probably also conducted trade, with other goods before the Viking Age as well, but on a much smaller scale,” she says.
And often it was luxury items that made up the trade goods, and not everyday products such as whetstones, Baug said.
But Baug's own research also shows that the whetstones are a very old export item. And they were transported out of Norway by ship in large quantities.
“This trade began early in the 8th century, meaning a little before the first Viking expeditions took place,” Baug said.
“Whetstones become a reflection of the development of trade and production that took place in the 8th and 9th centuries,” she said.
From Norway to Denmark
The production of whetstones in Norway started in Mostadmarka in Trøndelag.
The first export Baug and her colleagues have found evidence of went from this area to Ribe on the west coast of Denmark in the early 8th century. Ribe is considered to be the first established city in Scandinavia. It developed into a major trading post during the Viking Age.
One hundred years later, in the early 9th century, production of whetstones from Norway also began at Eidsborg in Telemark.
“There have probably been several quarries — but these are the two that we know of where there has been large-scale production,” Baug said.
“These were established not only because farmers needed whetstones, but with the goal of selling them more widely,” she said.
A type of sandstone
But what was it about the whetstones from Norway that made them so desirable for other countries?
“The geology made them desirable. They are made of slate and have hard mineral grains that could act as an abrasive when sharpening tools. In particular, the whetstones from Mostadmarka are relatively fine-grained. These are well suited for fine grinding, putting the final edge on a sword or needle,” she said.
The stone from Eidsborg is more coarsely grained but also very well suited to sharpening.
“There’s not much suitable stone in Denmark, so they had to import whetstones. Our findings show that from the 8th century onwards, people had built up contacts and a network which enabled them to access quality products from distant lands. They didn't have to go out and look for locally sourced stones,” Baug said.
Marketplaces expanded the scope of trade
Whetstones could be traded far and wide as trade overall became more organized.
“It was challenging and sometimes dangerous to transport goods by sea during the Viking Age. Having to export goods over great distances also meant that you were dealing with people you didn’t know. If you traded with strangers, you could be cheated or robbed,” Baug said.
In more urban areas like Kaupang in Vestfold, trade became safer. Here there were people with power and resources who could ensure that the marketplace was safe. Trade was undertaken at a much larger scale at these established market areas, where more people than before were involved.
“What is exciting about Ribe is that exports started much earlier than we thought. As early as the 8th century, trade began to be organized,” Baug said.
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“There were probably many workers who were involved in the whetstone industry. Some cut whetstones, some organized the work in the quarries, while others were involved in exporting the whetstones to towns and trading places,” Baug said.
Perhaps there were more men in the quarries in winter, when there was less to do on the farm.
“The individuals who owned and had control over quarries and the products they produced earned a lot of wealth,” Baug said.
And the communities along the watercourse where the stones were shipped may have benifitted from the whetstone trade.
“This kind of trade required a good export port, not only for whetstones, but also for other products,” Baug said.
Don’t raid where you trade
As part of their work on whetstones, Baug and colleagues have also come up with a theory of nothing less than why the Viking Age began.
The quarry in Trøndelag is roughly 1100 kilometres from the trading centre in Ribe in Denmark. A fairly stable trading network would need to be in place for it to be possible to transport large quantities of stones this far away.
“Our studies show that trade between the Northern and Southern parts of Scandinavia was very important – so important that this trade route was protected,” Baug says.
Vikings did raid their own, the archaeologist says, but measures put in place to protect trade and the benefits of trade meant that raiding villages along that route was less attractive. So those who wished to continue with this activity had to find new hunting grounds, outside of Scandinavia. And thus began the raids overseas in Ireland, Scotland and England.
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk
About the project
The whetstones research is based on an interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeology and geology. The people involved in the project are:
- Irene Baug, University of Bergen
- Dagfinn Skre, University of Oslo
- Tom Heldal, NGU
- Torkil Røhr, NGU
- Øystein Jansen, University of Bergen
- An article about the project was published in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology in 2019.