The Sphinx of Egypt, the Sistine Chapel and the life-size sculpted representations of David or the Ancient Grecian Gods are all examples of great artistic achievements that have withstood the test of time. When the average person thinks of the arts, be it paintings, architecture or sculpture they are more interested in the object or work created than what it is made from. People see the Mona Lisa, not necessarily the paints used, the canvas it is painted upon or the nature of the brush strokes. When the average spectator sees the Notredame Cathedral in France, people are awed by its enormity and detail design, but not on what elements make up the finished product. Art can be defines as many things and can be made from any number of sources, from proper canvas to great granite-based architecture and inspiring statues carved from marble or alabaster. Of all of these mediums there are some that have not only artistic applications but can be manipulated to serve greater and practical purposes as well; Soapstone is one such substance that is under-recognized, but is rather multi-talented, so to speak. Soapstone, also, known as spaonit, potstone and steatite, is historically one of the more common substances used throughout the worlds history for a number applications, particularly within traditional art forms (Quintaes and et. al. 134). While its artistic uses are seen throughout history, it has also found a place in modern society, including in architecture and the sciences.
Soapstone is a metamorphic rock that is essentially impure form of talc. It contains elements of chlorite, amphiboles, carbonates and micas, as well as, few other minerals. It is a very soft stone and earned its name from the fact it feels much like a bar of soap when held. Soapstone is formed in the convergent plate boundaries where the crust of the Earth is subjected to high heat and direct pressure. It can also be formed in smaller amounts wherever siliceous dolostones are changed by the presence of heated and highly chemically active liquids in a process that is properly called “metasomatism” (Geoscience News and Information 1). What is called “unfinished soapstone:” will often appear to be a shade of grey, however, when finished it can appear to be white, black, blue, yellow, orange, rusty and green. It can also be a combination of these colors (Bonsoo and et. al. 29). In ancient times the people discovered that Soapstone was so soft that it can often scratched by someone’s fingernail; it could be carved with simple tools like other stones and sticks and then it could be polished using simple dust. Many modern artists prefer to use modern tools, but simpler tools are always an option even among artisans and craftsmen today (Geoscience News and Information 1). Its origins can be attributed to five specific eras and migrations that spread its use throughout the world.
Egypt and Babylonia: Modern scholarly research has determined that Egypt and Babylon both carved Soapstone and used them for a variant of purposes, both artistic and practical (Johanson 1).
Native Americans: While being used in other parts of the world the Native American peoples were also using Soapstone as early as the Late Archaic Period, ranging from 3000 to 5000 years ago, for the production of bowls, cooking slabs, ornaments and smoking pipes. Soapstone has been quarried for thousands of years. More recent studies on San Clemente Island, more than fifty miles offshore, have found Soapstone artifacts that may date back as far as 8,000 years (Geoscience News and Information 1).
China: Soapstone has been used around the world; historians trace its history as far back as 3,000 years ago in China. The highlight of Chinese use of Soapstone in artistry occurred during the Ming Dynasty, from 1368 to 1644, however, as it became popular for Chinese artists its cost increased to equal Jade and made it far too costly for average artisan to afford (Geoscience News and Information 1).
Western Europe, The Middle East and Parts of Africa: It was used by the Ancient Greeks to make stamps, the Vikings used it to carve jewelry, Africa used it for a number of aspects including tribal and ceremonial sculptures, like in Zimbabwe and Iran (Bonsoo and et. al. 30). In the 1920s through the 1940s, Soapstone celebrate more heightened popularity during the Art Deco movement.
The Inuits of Alaska: embraced the use of Soapstone long before it had became part of the United States. In the past, Inuit artisans produced their carvings with walrus or whale bones, however as white sttelers of European descent moved in Alaska and parts of Canada they brought the soft Soapstone with them (Johanson 1).
One of the most famous examples of Soapstone used in sculpture is “Christ the Redeemer,” which stands, 120 feet, high above and overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. It has a concrete reinforced core, but its entire exterior is made of carved Soapstone (Geoscience News and Information 1). Soapstone has and remains a substance popular with the arts, which are not the only purposes that Soapstone has been found to benefit. As time as continued on the uses have Soapstone appears to have evolved with civilizations and became beneficial in a number of areas. The properties of Soapstone including its softness, which makes it easier to carve, make it ideal for many different and modern applications for Soapstone based on its other beneficial qualities including the following.
Nonpourous: it has no pours that allow for liquids or gases to pass through the surface (Geoscience News and Information 1).
Nonabsorbent: Does not absorb the properties of liquids it is exposed to (Geoscience News and Information 1).
Heat Resistant: Does not become hot when exposed to direct sources of heat (Geoscience News and Information 1).
High Specific Heat Capacity: In able to conduct and radiate heat without damage (Geoscience News and Information 1).
Low Electric Conductivity: This allows it make resist electrical current (Geoscience News and Information 1).
Resistance to Alkalis and Acids: Meaning that it is immune to exposure to chemicals, including extreme cleansers and sterilizers (Geoscience News and Information 1).
These properties have made Soapstone extremely popular in number industries for a variation of applications. It has always been popular as a means to make utensils, dishware and pots and pans. Some studies have shown that while there is no danger from consuming foods heated and stored in Soapstone pottery and cookware are, in fact, unlikely to experience any kind of negative side effects, in fact, the results show that is some cases the minerals present in the Soapstone that may be consumed by human beings is actually beneficial, providing minerals that are by and large beneficial for people (Quintaes and et. al. 134). While it is still perceived as a fantastic artistic medium to many, its use in other modern endeavors as proven to be far more beneficial. Because it is nonporous, nonabsorbent, cleanser resistant and heat resistant it has been popularly used in countertops within homes, to insulate wood burning stoves, encase fireplace hearths and kitchen sinks. Similarly, because of its low electrical conductivity it is often used to encapsulate power boxes (Geoscience News and Information 1).
The fact that Soapstone does not burn has made it popular in modern architecture. We see the use of Soapstone wall paneling and tiles are used in environments where both heat and moisture are present. Being both heat and water resistant they are ideal for saving energy within homes and for the walls of bathroom showers and bath tubs (Geoscience News and Information 1). However, one of its most common uses in the modern era for soapstone is within the realms of science. Because of its heat resistance, low conductivity, inability to be burned and its ability to resist damage from acids and bases, it has been embraced as the ideal work surfaces in the realms chemistry and physics (Johanson 1-2).
Soapstone is a very simple substance, but it is a substance that has many differing applications, uses and benefits in a multitude of industries and disciplines. A substance that may have been benefitting human beings, in one way or another, since as far back as 8,000 years ago it has a relevant place in history. As an artistic medium it has been at the core of many ancient and modern traditions and cultures. Its practical uses, like cookware and dishes has continued well into the presents in nations all across the globe. It has a place in architecture and construction. It has a very modern part to play within scientific laboratories, making them safer and cleaner. Perhaps its many beneficial properties will be applied to new endeavors as we come to know more about Soapstone in the future. Soapstone may have an unusual and simple name, but its value, throughout history, for many civilizations, could be seen as priceless. That being said Soapstone is often unknown, carries a humble name, but has far greater benefits that many would ever expect.
Johanson, Stephanie Ann. “Soapstone.” Jay Frank White Academy. (n.d.): 1-5.
Quintaes, Kesia Diego and et. al. “Soapstone (Steatite) Cookware As A Source Of
Minerals.”Food Addictives and Contaminant. 19.2. (2002): 134-143.
Bonsoo, Emmanuel Obeng and et. al. “Soapstone Carving Assemblage.” Arts and Design
Studies. 29. (2015): 29-35.
Geoscience News and Information. “Soapstone” Geology.com. (2015): 1. Web.