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From prehistoric times, but a material for our future

Et stilleben med skifer

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see a consumer? The past generations have bought, thrown away – and bought again. Always in search of the latest trend. The newest. The most trendy.

Photo: Lars Petter Pettersen

We’ve exploited the Earth to breaking point and it’s our responsibility to do something about it. And it’s urgent. The right decisions should have been made yesterday.

As Greta Thunberg told the UN: “I want you to react like in a crisis. I want you to react as if your house is on fire.”

Illustration picture

But we haven’t always been consumers. 11,000 years ago, we were Stone Age people. And believe it or not, we were innovative then, too. And creative. Why? Because we had to fight for survival every day.

11,000 years ago, we hunted, gathered and harvested. Every single day, 365 days a year. This was absolutely necessary, to ensure your and your family’s survival. In those days we had to work alongside nature and the environment.

A close-up of a brown rust colored slate from Otta Pillarguri with small pieces of rock lying on top.

Knives, axes and arrowheads. Access to materials that could be shaped into tools with extreme strength and durability was vital. If the family could not get food, they would die. Flint is not found naturally in Norway. So what could we use?

Stone Age man had to find a solution that was already available in the local environment. “Seek and ye shall find…” they say.

Small pieces of brown / rust colored slate from Otta Pillarguri lying in a pile.

The solution was already to hand; there were quartzite deposits in the Norwegian mountains, which 11,000 years ago were already ancient. And the slate was not only strong and durable, since unlike flint, a slate knife edge could be resharpened if you were unlucky to break it.

So it was perfect for recycling.

Mountains seen from the slate quarry of Minera Skifer in Oppdal

The Scandinavian slate deposits come from enormous sandstone masses, deposited 600-800 million years ago, which through the formation of the mountain ranges were pressed together in rhythmic layers. Layer upon layer, over millions of years, nature has worked like a skilled blacksmith, who, with hammering and heat and patience over time produces thin elements of extreme strength.

Thin black slabs of slate of Otta Pillarguri that are stacked vertically.

The old ones are the wisest, it is said, and that is also true in the world of geology. Our slate has had the honour of experiencing countless ice ages. First was the Cryogenian Ice Age around 650-700 million years ago, and more followed. Over millions of years, all of these ice ages peeled away the rock’s loose materials. Weathered stone was removed.

The old stuff has gone and we can now skim off the cream.

An overview image from the slate quarry of Minera Skifer with large stacks of blocks.

Ever since Stone Age man made this vital discovery, we have used slate as a material.

The oldest slate floor we know of is from the 11th century, at Munkholmen in Trondheim, Norway. Slate has been used as roof tiles since the 15th century and on many farms, including as a booth separator in cowsheds because it can withstand lactic acid.

The slate roofing at Elveseter Art and culture hotel. The roof is brown and rust-colored, with roofing tiles from Otta Pillarguri.
At Elveseter Art and Culture Hotel, slate roofing tiles has protected against weather and wind since 1899, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

As stone was heavy to transport, slate was preferably used near the deposits. It was not until industrialization at the end of the 19th century and the construction of railways that there was a sharp increase in the production and use of slate throughout the country.

A picture from the 1930s of a slate worker transporting slate by horse and sleigh over snow-capped mountains.

Over time, slate has been both loved and hated.

And oddly enough, even if the house that Greta Thunberg is talking about may be burning down, Norwegian slate, with its record-low carbon footprint, has never been more relevant.

With a building sector that accounts for 35 per cent of CO2 emissions we need to make our generation’s consumers aware that local slate resources can make important contributions to our future survival – just as they did for Stone Age people.

A small hut that stands in the slate quarry of Minera Skifer in Oppdal.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals – the world’s joint work plan to stop climate change by 2030, mean that, unlike 11,000 years ago, we now have to take urgent action to prevent our house from being razed to the ground.

We need to recognise that when our house is to be restored, furnished or rebuilt, we must make this as environmentally-friendly as possible, which includes using sustainable materials.

The work table for a stonemason in Offerdal. On top of the stone slab lies a hammer and chisels.

We have the gold of the future in our own mountains. Slate has been forged by the Earth’s interior for millennia. It’s almost as if it knew that we’d need it. A natural resource stored in the mountains, which can be quarried, shaped and have almost eternal life in and on buildings and interiors.

A truck loaded with slate blocks that drives down a winding road from the slate quarry in Oppdal.

Summer and winter, we quarry slate that is hundreds of millions of years old from the mountain and transport it a few short kilometres to the production hall.

There, stonemasons still ply their trade in the same way as slate has been worked for hundreds of years: by hand with simple tools. Layered the way nature has forged it. There’s no other way to do it.

A stone mason who splits a slate block by hand with a hammer and chisel.

And indeed, there are countless homes, gardens, squares and stunning buildings built using slate from Norway and Sweden. But we need more. Why?

Not only is it a nature-based material that is still processed by hand, as Stone Age man discovered 11,000 years ago; it is also beautiful and extremely strong and durable.

Slate can withstand frost, snow, heat, fresh water, salt water, acid, climate change and extreme loads – almost without maintenance, into the foreseeable future.

A chisel that stands inside a layer in a slate block of Offerdal slate.

Slate can withstand frost, snow, heat, fresh water, salt water, acid, climate change and extreme loads – almost without maintenance, into the foreseeable future.

It is an almost eternal natural resource that will protect surfaces and buildings without being damaged. Slate can be laid above and below water, in metro stations and in office buildings. In your entrance hall at home or around your cabin fireplace. As an extra bonus, anything stacked, screwed or bricked up can be reused and reused, again and again.

Therefore, we should do as we did in the Stone Age, which is to think of the slate as an opportunity, not just as a stone. It’s an opportunity to think new and sustainable – to contribute to the survival of our own and future generations. A natural resource in the form of a raw material that does not require polluting production, but only processing. And that will remain beautiful and lasting for several hundred, and maybe even thousands of years.

The process of dividing and shaping slate is so detailed and sensitive that it is still impossible to fully replace it with robots and technology. And the same tools and techniques that were in use hundreds of years ago are still in use today.

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