The stones were whetstones, also known as sharpening stones, and were vital for the Vikings' day-to-day life.
In fact, there were so many of these whetstones that they are some of the most common things that we find from the Viking Age today.
While museums store a lot of these whetstones, they have only recently been the subject of more in-depth study. Irene Baug, an archeologist and researcher at the University of Bergen, began studying these stones in 2014.
As Baug told Science Norway, those whose work focuses on the Viking Age will often work with beautiful artifacts and jewelry. These stones are neither special nor pretty, yet they can tell us a unique story.
A key element of Viking day-to-day life
Whetstones were quite important for the Vikings' everyday activities. They were used for crafts, in the household, by farmers for their tools, and by the Viking warriors who would need them to sharpen their weapons.
What is special about whetstones is that they were used by practically everyone in the Viking Age, whether they were warriors or housewives, rich or poor.
"These finds can tell us a lot about production, trade, and contact networks from the Viking age onwards," Baug says.
For example, the discovery of whetstones proved interesting when Norwegian archaeologists excavated the Gjellestad ship in 2020.
They found that the whetstones excavated there likely came from a quarry in Telemark, which could help them understand not only the person buried there but also the trade networks that were at this person's disposal. This is because, in the Vikings' time, these stones were not only mass-produced but also sent far and wide.
Export of whetstones
While it has often been believed that whetstones were the first item that Norway exported, Baug herself is not too sure about this since trading also took place before the Viking Age.
Nevertheless, her research shows that whetstones were actually exported a little while before the Viking Age began.
Whetstones in Norway were first produced at Mostadmarka in Trøndelag. From here, Baug and her colleagues have uncovered that the first export went to the major trading post, Ribe, on Denmark's West Coast at the start of the 8th century.
The production of whetstones was likely an elaborate activity. Workers were needed to organize the labor done in the quarries, cut the stones, and for the export itself.
It has also been speculated that more men would be working in the quarries in wintertime, as there was not much work to do on the farms. Given the widespread use of these stones, those who owned and controlled the quarries would have made a lot of money for themselves.
A "whetstone" (or sharpening stone) was a common sight in the early medieval period, used to sharpen sword or ax blades. Photo: SashaMagic / Shutterstock
In the 9th century, Vikings also began producing whetstones at Eidsborg in Telemark.
While there have likely been more quarries around, these are the two that we know to have produced at a large scale.
The goal of these two quarries was not only to provide farmers with whetstones but also to sell them to others.
This begs the question of why other countries would want to import these stones from Norway. Baug explains that the stones' geology made it so that they were very well suited for abrasing.
Here we can notice a difference between the stones from the two quarries. The whetstones from Eidsborg had a coarser grain, while the ones from Mostadmarka were more fine-grained, which also made them good for fine grinding.
In Denmark, for example, they did not have much stone fit for this work, which meant that they imported them instead.
Baug explains that it could not only be perilous and hard for the Vikings to transport their goods by sea, but they could also end up getting robbed or scammed when dealing with strangers.
However, as trade became a more organized activity, it also meant that these stones could be traded to faraway places.
In areas like Kaupang in Vestfold, trading became a safer activity. This was because the powerful and resourceful people there could ensure the marketplace was safe. Thus, more trading was done in areas like this.
In connection with whetstone trading, Baug and her colleagues have also proposed their own theory for why the Vikings went to raid abroad. Since the whetstones were transported far, it was necessary to have a stable trading network.
So, given the importance of the trade route between Northern and Southern Scandinavia, the route was protected. While Vikings were not above raiding each other, raiding villages along the export routes became less attractive when they saw the measures that were introduced to protect them.
So, those who wanted to continue raiding needed to venture further out, leading them to raid England, Ireland, and Scotland.
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