In the depths of the soil, far beneath the bustle of
the world above, an underground dwelling lays dormant.
Erected in the era of the Atlantic Iron Age, as far back
in history as 800 BCE, these chambers and passageways
were excavated and lined with stone slabs and wood for
Speckled throughout the Irish landside, the souterrains
(derived from the French word "sous terrains",
meaning "underground") are most abundantly located.
Still the subject of enigma amongst scholars, what was
the true purpose of these buried structures?
Secret Structures …
With the absence of insects and consistently cool temperatures,
the souterrains were believed by some to have been built
for the purpose of housing food and items of value. With
small alcoves and secret entrances, the defensive nature
of the structure suggests it may have also been used as
a place of safety for women and children if a fort was
This theory is reinforced in Ireland, as the majority
of known souterrain compartments were situated in close
proximity to a ringfort.
Further to that speculation, historical references suggests
that through documentation of looting in 'caves' of Munster
by Norsemen and again the 'caves' of Dowth and Knowth,
that the term 'caves' actually referred to the souterrains
Records state that ancient souterrains were used to hide
deposits of arms during the periods of fighting in Ireland,
and that similar structures were constructed for that
In Depth …
In Scotland, souterrains are referred to as 'earth-houses'
or 'fogous' and nearly two hundred have been discovered
throughout the north and surrounding isles. The difference
between the souterrains of Northern Scotland and Eastern
Scotland is primarily on the subterranean depth.
In the east, souterrains were only partially subterranean
with walls protruding above surface and held timber roofs
above ground level.
Outside of Britain, souterrains have been located as
far reaching as Japan, Iceland, China, Korea, Scandinavia,
North America and most nations in Europe.
Inside of a Souterrain
In Conclusion …
Whether used for habitation, storage, ritual or burial
reasons, or refuge, the prehistoric underground stone-built
souterrain will likely continue to be a cause of debate
and mystery for centuries to come.
Written by Kevin Knatloa
First Published on November 22, 2013