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Dr Riia Chmielowski

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Member of the Department of Archaeology  


Riia obtained a Bachelor of Science from Southern Oregon State College, in 1994. She finished her Master’s thesis in Geology in 1998, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks on The Structural Geometry and Evolution of the Toyuk Thrust Zone, Brooks Range, Alaska. She completed her first PhD, in Geology, in 2009, at the University of Tasmania, Hobart on The Cambrian Metamorphic History of Tasmania. She is currently studying at Durham half-time and long-distance while living in Luleå Sweden, where she is employed half-time as the manager of a Laser-Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) laboratory at Luleå University of Technology.

Research Topic

Viking-Age Steatite: Do Every-Day Household Objects Reveal Differences in Status?


This interdisciplinary research project will attempt to answer the question “Do even every-day household objects reveal differences in status?” by conducting an in-depth study of Viking-Age Steatite objects associated with individuals and/or farmsteads of various levels of status/wealth. Steatite is an easily carved stone with a high heat capacity, comprised mainly of talc, which appears in the form of vessels and other household objects in most Scandinavian grave finds from the Viking age. 

This provenance study, based on the geochemistry of steatite objects from a variety of locations in Scandinavia, with a focus on Sweden, will be used to test the hypothesis that differences in relative status and wealth are also expressed in differences in the source of even the most every-day utilitarian objects.and aims to gain a broader understanding of the movement and trade of steatite within Scandinavia and the Scandinavian colonies during the Viking Age. Samples from both high and low status grave sites will be analysed to test the hypothesis that status is an important factor in what trade goods one has access to, even for basic household objects. An understanding of differences in steatite sources can reveal which trading networks were available, which could have been influenced by a variety of factors, including:

a) Status (both within the community and whether the household owned boats moving in and out of harbours).
b) Personal relationships (clan membership and owner-tenant relationships could have influenced access to goods).
c) Proximity to seasonal or permanent trading centres (there could very well have been down-the-line barter and exchange radiating out from trading centres).

Phase one of the project uses a combination of LA-ICP-MS, X-Ray Diffractometry (XRD), and Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to characterise steatite from a variety of known quarry locations across Sweden and Norway. LA-ICP-MS is an analytical tool with an ability to resolve trace elements present in a sample down to parts per billion (ppb) levels. It is especially attractive for archaeological artefacts due to the fact that it can be used on solid objects with little to no sample preparation, does not require a vacuum to operate, and produces minute laser “craters” (5 to 150 µm in diameter) which are invisible to the naked eye. XRD is a rapid analytical technique that can be used to identify crystalline materials and reveal their major element compositions. SEM is used to examine the samples and determine the distribution of the various mineral phases present, the frequency and distribution of which may be characteristic of different source locations. The combination of all three techniques helps to elucidate the differences between steatite from the various quarries sampled, which, in turn, makes it easier to match the artefacts with their sources and thus reveal patterns in trade and transport of such household objects during the Viking Age.

Conference Contributions

Chmielowski, R., and Badreshany, K., 2019. Characterisation of Swedish Steatite via LA-ICP-MS, XRD and SEM. United Kingdom Archaeological Sciences 2019. Manchester, U.K. 24-26 April.

Chmielowski, R.M. Early Medieval Steatite Sources in Sweden. 13th Annual Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium. University of Durham/University of Newcastle, 11-13 April 2019.

Chmielowski, R.M., 2018, Viking-Age Steatite: Do Every-Day Household Objects Reveal Differences in Status?, Conference: Grave Concerns: Death, Landscape and Locality in Medieval Society, Durham, UK, 13-15 July 2018.


Chmielowski, R. M. (2009). The Cambrian Metamorphic History of Tasmania. School of Earth Sciences. PhD Thesis. Hobart, University of Tasmania. 162 pages.

Chmielowski, R. M. (1998). The Structural Geometry and Evolution of the Toyuk thrust zone, Brooks Range, Alaska. Department of Geology and Geophysics. MSc Thesis. Fairbanks, University of Alaska: 92 pages.

Selected Grants

Society for Medieval Archaeology, Eric Fletcher Fund, 2018, used to attend and present at the Conference: Grave Concerns: Death, Landscape and Locality in Medieval Society, Durham, UK, 13-15 July 2018.

Research groups