This soapstone bowl is from North Carolina and dates to the Late Archaic period, Savannah River phase, ca. 5000-3500 BP.
Soapstone was quarried by Native Americans in the eastern United States from about 4000 BP, and was used extensively for cooking vessels during the Terminal Archaic before is was supplanted by pottery during the Early Woodland period. It is found in various parts of eastern North America and outcrops in the mountains of western North Carolina, most notably at Judaculla Rock. The small, well-made soapstone bowl in this model may have been used for cooking or serving hot food. Residue analysis of soapstone bowls from the Hunters Home Site in New York found traces of native grasses and fish inside the bowls. Scrape marks from shaping the inside and outside of the bowl are clearly visible. The outside may have been partly shaped by pecking; if so, this high-impact process was likely done prior to carving out the inside. At some soapstone quarries, the outside was shaped while the stone was still attached to the bedrock. It was then sliced off and the inside hollowed-out. Unfinished bowls can still be seen attached to bedrock outcrops at the ancient Ochee Springs Soapstone Quarry in Rhode Island, dating to the Terminal Archaic. The craftsperson carved handles on each side of this bowl, which archaeologists call ‘lugs’. Soapstone bowls were prized possessions: the stone was traded up to 600 km, and bowls have been found in burials in Louisiana covering the face of the deceased.
The artefact is curated in the North Carolina Archaeological Collection, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, catalog no. 604.1p5.
Soapstone (or steatite) is metamorphosed talc that was highly prized in prehistory because the material is very soft and easy to carve. It is about 2 on the Mohs scale of hardness and can be scratched with a fingernail. Soapstone is dense, non-porous, will not soak up liquids, is highly resistant to heat, and will not fracture when directly exposed to flames. Because of these attributes, people in widely different parts of the world independently began using soapstone for bowls and cooking vessels. For instance, bedrock quarries for bowls are known from Scandinavia and North America, and ornate soapstone vessels were extensively traded and used in various parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Native Americans also discovered that small grooved blocks of soapstone were excellent for straightening arrow and dart shafts. To straighten a shaft, a soapstone block was heated directly on a fire, the wood shaft was placed in the groove carved on one face, and pressure was applied to the shaft’s ends. The heat at the contact point raises the temperature of the wood and makes it much easier to bend. Hot lumps of soapstone were sometimes dropped in water, a process referred to as ‘stone boiling’. Smoking pipes were often made from soapstone because the outside of the stone stays cool while the tobacco burns in the bowl. Large blocks of soapstone was used as stone in constructing buildings in some parts of the world, and nowadays soapstone carvings are often sold as objects to tourists. Soapstone has been used as moulds for casting metals and for hearth stones to radiate heat. A specialist pencil used by modern metal workers—and available today in many hardware stores—is made from cut cylinders of soapstone because, unlike chalk, the mark left on the metal is impervious to the heat generated by welding tools and will not contaminate the welds.