Going Underground – Souterrains at The Cairns

Following on from our Facebook features on The Cairns excavation in South Ronaldsay, people have been asking questions about the Souterrain and other undergound places found at the site.If you want to be part of the Archaeology Institute University of the Highlands and Islands research programme as a student of archaeology or a volunteer then please contact Mary at archaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our webpage https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/archaeology-institute

Where else are they found?

Souterrains are found in Brittany, Cornwall (fougous), Ireland, prolifically up the East of Scotland north of the Firth of Forth , but more sporadically anywhere in Scotland and then quite densely in Atlantic Scotland.  There’s also a small and slightly strange spread of them in the Jutland region of Denmark, which have sometimes been suggested to bear a resemblance to Scottish examples! 

When were they in use?

Traditionally, they are seen as a fundamentally Iron Age phenomenon, with the expectation of a south-to-north development and spread and with the French examples as the earliest with early examples in the earlier Iron Age of the 6th and 5th Centuries BC.  However, we can now see more clearly that these earlier assumptions hold no water.  The earliest dated examples that I am aware of come from Orkney, where we have radiocarbon dates of the very early Iron Age for at least three examples and artefactual material from a few others  that supports a very early date here.  Additionally, the is a further example from Orkney, which will be published by the Institute soon that yields a spectacularly early date for construction and use (watch this space)!  Souterrains in Scotland were also clearly being constructed late in the Iron Age or in the Pictish period.  Our souterrain at The Cairns, for example was built after the end of the main use of the broch.  In Ireland the souterrains there are frequently dated to a much later period from the 800’s AD to about the 12th Century AD and are often seen as refuges in times of strife (see below).  

Why were they abandoned?

To answer this we need to look at individual examples.  One archaeologist has suggested that for the souterrains in NE mainland Scotland there is an ‘abandonment horizon’ chronologically and he attributes this to the collapse of relationships with the Roman army in the mid to late 2nd Century AD, which he would suggest had, until then, fostered a growth in the agrarian economy of that part of Scotland to feed the needs of the Roman army, and hence a growth in local storage facilities to cope with this demand.  It’s fair to say this explanation has not received universal support from Iron Age scholars, and there is plenty of evidence of souterrains being constructed in the NE long before the Romans arrived and abandoned long after they left.  Indeed, many souterrains in that part of the world incorporate fragments of Roman masonry often showing that they were built, at least a short time, after the Romans had abandoned their local garrison forts.

What are they used for?

The age old question and one that we aim to give at least some sensible contributions to through our research at The Cairns and in the Windwick Bay landscape more generally, at least for Orkney and Atlantic Scotland.

The short answer is we still do not know for certain what role the souterrains played in the societies that built them.  For one thing they may not all have been used for the same purpose in each of the key regions in which they are found.  Indeed, the chronological variety that I’ve mentioned above could encourage us to contemplate whether they are the same thing at all, in which case our term souterrain becomes nothing more than a descriptive typology, rather than a cultural phenomenon representing affinities across a large regional canvass during the Iron Age and early Historic periods.    Additionally, there is no particular reason why souterrains should have a single use even within the smaller regions within which they were built and used.  A further extension to this is that some individual souterrains show evidence of having been used for a very long time, many centuries in some cases, so again there’s no necessary reason why an individual souterrain should not have been used for a variety of different purposes over that long life. 

The traditional explanations are largely three-fold and usually argued to be mutually exclusive:

1. Storage

2. Refuge

3. Ritual/religious

The first of these; Storage, is largely where the consensus of scholars lies currently, and it is indeed perfectly possible and interesting to contemplate that souterrains could have been used to store agricultural produce such as grain, or indeed dairy produce such as milk, butter and cheeses.  It is tempting to see them as essentially analogous to the cold stores: the ‘tattie houses’ or ice houses of a much later period.  The idea of storing grain in the souterrains of the Scottish Isles seems problematic because there is almost always only one entrance into the structures and therefore to use the space effectively (i.e. be able to rotate the stored produce or be able to access the oldest produce first you would have to refrain from storing the grain en masse, and therefore have to store it in containers such as pots or kegs first and this just simply renders much of the space of the souterrain chambers redundant.  If you are going to store grain in pots then you can do that in any type of reasonably sheltered space it doesn’t require an underground facility and you could as easily do it aboveground in roundhouses and brochs and we have very good evidence from Orkney and Shetland that that is exactly what Iron Age communities were doing in several of the broch excavations.  We also know that people were storing grain in other ways both before and after the Iron Age in above ground structures.  So why underground storage during the Iron Age?  Therefore if we are to redeem the idea of souterrains as implicated in storage of agrarian produce then we have to consider that it was not a necessary and environmentally determined purpose but more likely a cultural and quite possibly political and ritual motivation for storing produce.

This leads us on to discuss other motivations for their construction including ritual.  Firstly, some general considerations: it has to be said that ritual has a bit of a bad reputation amongst the public when it comes to archaeology and indeed amongst some archaeologists too!     It often seems to the public that archaeologists all too readily nominate any aspect of excavation sites and past societies that they fail to understand in a common-sensical or logical manner as stemming from the hopelessly arcane ritual lives of past people.  There has been an unfortunate tendency in the recent past for excavators to relegate anything they recover from a site that cannot be immediately explained in pragmatic terms to the dust-bin of ritual.  This probably explains why some members of the public are tempted to throw their eyes heavenward when archaeologists evoke ritual as an explanation for various phenomena.  However, more recently many archaeologists have come  to appreciate the importance of ritual practice in the lives of many, if not all, ‘non-Western’ or traditional societies. 

In terms of souterrains specifically I feel there are at least three key areas of the archaeology of souterrains that we need to consider, here.  These are 1. Their construction (& architecture), 2. their chronological place within specific sites and the objects and 3. the artefacts and materials that have been deposited inside them.  The detail of each of these considerations leads me to think there is a strong ideological/ritual aspect to souterrains.  For example, just using data from Orkney and Shetland, various souterrains sites have been found to contain human remains, including full inhumations (whole burials of bodies), fragments of bodies, especially collections of heads, and cremated bone.  Other objects/materials found in them have included stone figurines, or ‘necked stones’ in the local parlance; broken stone tools and querns apparently deliberately formally deposited, and fragments of metalwork or pottery that again look like they have been formally deposited and not simply casually discarded.  So it looks like there is quite a degree of formal deliberate deposition, or ‘structured deposition’ as it’s known in archaeology, involved in the practices and activities that were underway at souterrains during the Iron Age.  Essentially, I think we’re talking about ritual practices here.  Now ritual can be in attendance at a whole variety of types of place – it doesn’t have to mean that a particular place or type of site was specifically intended to be primarily a ritual place, even though ritual practices were sometimes undertaken there.  When we factor in the construction and architecture of souterrains we also have to ponder aspects such as the very underground nature; the darkness of these places, often accentuated by twists, turns or kinks in the entrance passages.  We can also consider the way these entrance passages often turn in an anti-clockwise direction (against the sun’s movement), when almost all aboveground built space in the Iron Age is laid out in a clock-wise direction (with the sun’s movement), as if there is a deliberate wish to contravene the normal social rules in the construction and use of souterrains.  These are just a few of many aspects that make it clear to me that there is strong potential for souterrains to have ritual and ideological dimensions built into their architecture. 

 Souterrains are often built as some of the first features on brand new Iron Age settlement sites.  They appear to be part of the foundation sequences of sites and we suspect that this makes them a very important aspect of these big politically and socially important building projects that were underway during the early and Middle Iron Age.  At the opposite end of the sequence we often find souterrains built at the end of the main period of use of big impressive buildings such as massive roundhouses and brochs, with souterrains often built into the remains of these (as, for example, with our souterrain at The Cairns).     In this case it again looks like building a souterrain was sometimes part of the act of decommissioning the broch or roundhouse as though the souterrain memorialises the earlier building.  Indeed, we can push this apparent interest in the past on the part of souterrain builders even further because there are quite a large number of souterrains, in Orkney at least, that are built into the remains of much earlier archaeological sites; such as tombs dating to the Neolithic.  Indeed, some souterrains have carved and decorated stones of a type more at home in the Neolithic built into their architecture.  I think all of this makes us think that the souterrains were about more than simple prosaic storage, and had strong cultural belief built into them as well.

 Finally, lets deal with refuge.  Although the consensus position in Ireland for the souterrains there is that they provided refuge places in times of trouble, it is inherently unlikely that many of the souterrains in most other parts of Britain can be adequately explained in this way.  For example, souterrains in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland almost always have one entrance and therefore one exit, they do not possess the air ventilation shafts seen in Irish souterrains and they do not very often lead out from an aboveground building or enclosure to exit outside of that space offering escape as many of the Irish ones do.  Essentially, many Scottish souterrains would be more death-trap than refuge in hostile circumstances.  Additionally, most souterrains in Scotland  probably had a very specific relationship with above ground buildings and settlement.  The nature of warfare during the Iron Age in Scotland (as for most of Britain) was probably fairly small-scale and effectively internecine, therefore its probable that any hostile party attempting to overrun a settlement would know very well to expect souterrain type features at any settlement as they would possess them themselves and therefore souterrains are not a very effective hide-out strategy.  Imagine the nightmare of being ‘holed up’ in a souterrain where an aggressor had overrun the settlement above and then you are discovered, the hostile party need only set a fire at the entrance to the souterrain and smoke you out, or burn you alive, or even just seal you up and bury you alive!  I therefore think refuge is highly unlikely in a North of Scotland souterrain context.

 All of this I think leads to the possibility that souterrains have strong ritual and ideological aspects embedded in them but that this does not preclude them being used also for the storage of important materials and foodstuffs or seed corn, indeed the importance of these things like agricultural surpluses, and the status that can be negotiated/achieved through its control would mean that storage is highly likely to be complementary to important seasonal rituals and political performances.  

Our work at The Cairns is intended to try to determine if this is the case or not!

If you want to be part of the Institutes research programme as a student of archaeology or a volunteer then please contact Mary at archaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our webpage https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/archaeology-institute