June 5, 2010

While drying of course can be a viable option in order to preserve food such as meat, some salt may have been used in the Viking age cuisine around Lofoten. Salt is generally used for preserving meat, to preserve dairy products and in order to give your food taste. In this area I would assume that the order of importance would be go from dairy products as the most important to the use of salt as a taste enhancer as the least important.

Though salt generally plays an important role in order to preserve meat, it could be possible that the strong winds and smoke could be used to dry the meat. In order to preserve any dairyproducts that are not supposed to be soured, however, there are no real option but to use salt.

Though the sagas generally are uncertain as a source material the story on how Torarin puts is opponents head in salt, at the very least shows that salt for dry curing was available in the 12th century and possibly – since the salted head have a central role in that story – even earlier.

For both cheese and butter I would think that salt has played an important role, even though one may store butter in bogs and cheese in smoke or piles of manure (Olaus Magnus). A soft cheese may be given a slightly longer longer life by subjecting it to smoke. However, in order to prolong the life of both cheese and butter salt would have been a quite important resource.

Although many medieval stories, sayings and recipes point towards the importance of salt as a taste enhancer, this may indeed be the least of the uses of salt as a resource. A salty taste may be obtained indirectly by the salt that may have been present in meat, fish or dairy products.

While it would be next to impossible to find any hard evidence for any salt being used in Lofoten, the importance of salt for curing and storing would make it an attractive commodity, and I would certainly have been an appreciated addition to the economy of a greater farm even at this latitude.

Though three main sources of salt can be considered, only two of them seem to be viable at the tme and place of my experiments. The production of salt from saltwater requires either weather conditions in which rain is scarce, or an unseemly amount of fuel which would soon have deforested the islands around here even if they were covered by forests at the time. Another possible source of salt would have been the extraction of salt from dried seaweed, though that may have been a possible source, that salt was generally considered to be of inferior quality and may even not be good enough for use as a curing agent – need to check my sources on that. The third possible source of salt would of course have to be from trade. Though there are no written accounts from the time or archaeological sources that indicate any salt trade here, it may still be possible that salt could have come from trade exchange that the dried cod, walrus ivory and reindeer skins would provide. Though the sources for an early trade of dried codfish are rather scarce, some archaeological material seem to indicate that Norwegian codfish somehow ended up in present day England (Barett, ) If one were to assume that codfish were traded with the British isle salt may have been one of the more attractive commodities for which the cod could have been traded. According to Hagen England seem to have been rather rich, or at least self sufficient in salt (Hagen, 2002, p. 45 – 47). A certain amount of salt-trade could perhaps provide the salt needed

Barett, James 2008, Detecting the medieval cod trade: a new method and first results Journal of Archaeological Science 35:4

Hagen, Ann 2002, A handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food – Processing and Consumption


15 Responses to “Salt”

  1. I happened to find this blog entry during a routine websearch for salt-archaeology-related sites.

    As far as I know, salt has never been an important research theme for scandinavian archaeology (not like in England and in Central Europe) and my bibliography contains very few items about salt in scandinavia, and nothing about the Lofote islands.
    I fully agree with the point about salt use: its main use was for conservation. Taste was secondary.
    Salt trade is a possibility, but local salt production is possible too. The problem with salt archaeology is the invisibility of the final product in archaeological contexts. And small-scale salt production can be done using normal kitchen equipment without archaeologically visible special tools.
    Given the climatic conditions, the only viable salt source for the Lofote islands would have been boiling seawater. The fuel problem could have been solved by various methods: they might have used peat as fuel, and they almost certainly pre-concentrated sea-water before boiling it, thus needing less fuel to obtain salt. Concentration of sea-water can be done in several ways: either by evaporation through wind (if they were able to make dried fish up there, the climate probably also allowed this)or by soaking salt-rich materials in the water. In Scotland sea-weed was used, in France they used beach sand, and in Holland they used the ashes of peat soaked with salt water. According to historic accounts and modern eperiments, these soaking methods can make seawater into concentrated brine which can be boiled down to obtain dry salt with far less fuel.
    (I think I once saw an article about possible medieval salt trade from the norwegian coast, but I don’t remember where it was, I might consult the database at the office computer tomorrow…)

    • eldrimner said

      Thanks, I think that the main problem here is that it is a) as you say not very visible and b) often dismissed by the notion thatthey did not have it nor use it.
      Well historically (late medieval and onwards) I know that Norway is said to have boiled salt in Iron pans, and later I think that one also have used seaweed. But the soaking of peat would also have been a viable option. Do you have any further descriptions on the actual way they went about it, would be quite interesting to make some experiments using viking age tools and equipment.

      However, from what I have heard – through not to reliable sources – the seaweed salt was of poor quality and perhaps not possible to use for preserving, I have not found any further information about that.

      I assume then that you are working on the archaeology of salt, quite a fascinating subject – can you recommend any literature on that subject?

      • I’ve been in and out of salt archaeology for more than ten years now. It started as part of my PhD thesis about iron age settlements in southern Germany, and I am trying to keep in touch with the “salt guys” now that I am working for a regional archaeology board and museum.

        I looked up the (very few) scandinavian literature on my lists. There probably exists more than that, but my knowledge of nordic languages is limited to some basic swedish, so I concentrated on literature in languages that I know better…
        so here is some salt literature:

        general books about salt archaeology :

        O. Weller (ed.), Archéologie du sel. Techniques et sociétés dans la Pré- et Protohistoire européenne. Actes du Colloque 12.2 du XIVe Congrès de UISPP, 4 septembre 2001, Liège et de la Table Ronde du Comité des Salines de France, 18 mai 1998, Paris. Internationale Archäologie-ASTK 3 (Rahden 2002)

        O.Weller, A.Dufraisse, P.Pétrequin (eds.),
        Sel, eau et forêt d’hier à aujourd’hui. Cahiers de la MSHE Ledoux no.12 (Besançon 2008)

        Older books/classics :

        J. Nenquin, Salt – A Study in Economic Prehistory. Dissertationes Archaeologicae Gandenses VI (Brugge 1961).

        K. W. de Brisay, K. A. Evans (Hrsg.), Salt, the Study of an Ancient Industry. Report on the Salt Weekend held at the University of Essex, 20, 21, 22 September 1974 (Colchester 1975).

        Salt production techniques:

        M. Hees, Prähistorische Salzgewinnung. Der Beitrag der Ethnographie zu ihrer Erforschung. Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 43, 2002, 227-244.

        salt archaeology in Scandinavia:

        H. Jaanusson, V. Jaanusson, Sea-salts as a Commodity of Barter in Bronze Age Trade of Northern Europe. In: B. Hårdh et al.(eds.), Trade and Exchange in Prehistory. Studies in Honour of Berta Stjernquist. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia no.16 (Lund 1988) 107-112.

        E. Tholander, En teknikers funderingar om Norrlands-järn och Tröndelags-salt I förhistoriskt handelsutbyte. Fornvännen 66, 1971, 1-17.

        B. Gräslund, Äring, näring, pest och salt. TOR 15, 1972/73, 274-293.

        Salt production from soaked peat:

        A. Heinze, Salzgewinnung aus Torf.
        Experimentelle Archäologie, Bilanz 1999. Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Nordwestdeutschland, Beiheft 30, 1999, 27-30.

        C. Lamschus, H. Lamschus, Meer Salz – Mehr Macht. Ausstellungskatalog Deutsches Salzmuseum Lüneburg (Lüneburg 1998).

        K. H. Marschalleck, Die Salzgewinnung an der friesischen Nordseeküste. Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet 10, 1973, 127-150.

      • eldrimner said

        Thanks, a good list of books. Perhaps I should look into doing a salt extraction experiment here next summer, would certainly be interesting. Do you know anything about the quality of the sea-weed or peat salt. Is it suitable for curing?

  2. As far as I know, there have been some experiments with peat salt, but not with sea-weed-salt, so there are no reliable data on its chemical composition or its usefulness for curing.
    There are however some written sources from the 18th century on the quality and uses of these different salt types (quoted in Marschalleck 1973).
    These sources call sea-weed-salt “greyish” or black, and bitter, of low quality. They call peat salt by the name of “Frisian salt” and say that it is of better (though not best)quality, and good for curing fish. Apparently, peat salt from Holland and Germany was exported to Denmark and Norway during the middle ages.

    • eldrimner said

      I’ll definetely have a chat with my boss here about a future sea-weed salt experiment here. Very interesting, what did the the sources have to say about the use of “black salt”

      • according to Marschalleck’s summary of the source texts, the main use would have been curing of meat and fish.
        By the way, can you read german? I have a copy of Marschalleck’s article at the office, and if you are interested I could “PDF-ize” it and e-mail it to you.

  3. eldrimner said

    That would be great. Though I do not read german, I can follow some, and a handfull of the guides working at this museum are speaking German so I guess I’ll try to use their linguistical skills.

  4. kari said

    what about using seawater when coocking? and can it not be hung over the fire when noting else is cooking, you probably won´t get much crystalline salt out of it, but by reducing ( letting the water evaporate) it you could perhaps produce a brine salty enouhg for curing food, or it could perhaps be added to flavor the food while it´s coocking. crustasians caught,prepared and eaten at the beach,are coocked in seawater(at least along the oslofjord)

    • Cooking in seawater is done all over the world to give flavor to food.
      But if you just take seawater and boil it down, you will get not only NaCl salt, but mixed with several bitter salts that are part of seawater. Bitter salts are not wanted, because of their taste, and because of some chemical properties bad for storage and for certain uses. Most of the tricks in traditional salt-making are concerned with the separation of salts.

    • eldrimner said

      That might be an idea, though even if I am on an island, there is still a few kilometres to the neares coast…some way to go in order to get the saltwater…so while it may have been an option for taste I doubt it would be very common.

  5. I digitized the article about peat salt and seaweed salt, but it’s a bit huge for e-mailing, so I put it in a storage place. You can download it here:

  6. eldrimner said

    Thanks, I am downloading it and trying to get a print out in the next few days. Will be quite interesting…now I should really start campaigning to get the place here to sponsor a salt extraction experiment next summer

    • Guillaume said

      Hi Daniel,

      I am very much interested in the subject of Viking salt production techniques and salt uses. I would have loved to get a copy of Marschalleck’s article, but unfortunately the link is dead. Would it be possible for you to find it back and to email it to me or upload it again? Have you been following up on this question, and what about the salt experiments you were considering? I would love to hear about that:) Very best,

      • eldrimner said

        Hi, I am afraid that my copy of the article is left on my old laptop, so I am not sure if I still can access it. I’ll look into that. Unfortuenately I have not had the opportunity to develop my thoughts when it comes to salt, but a friend of mine is working in salt related project and will do an experiment on extracting salt from seaweed using old methods.

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