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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 purposes disputed.

Souterrain Diagram

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 under attack.

This theory is reinforced in Ireland, as the majority of known souterrain compartments were situated in close proximity to a ringfort.

Souterrain Discovered

Further to that speculation, historical references suggests that through documentation of looting in 'caves' of Munster by Norsemen and again the 'caves' of Dowth and Knowth, that the term 'caves' actually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 or passage-tombs.

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 purpose thereafter.

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

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