Sunday, August 25, 2013

Picture of a souterrain in a ringfort or rath which has been half excavated in advance of road works in Ballygawley, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

The souterrain or `artificially built cave' is often found in association with ringforts and other enclosed settlements of the pre-Norman period such as promontory forts. They are found throughout the country but have only recently been studied in any detail by P. Gosling for Co. Louth. He found that of the 250 examples known in Co. Louth there were high concentrations in the area to the west and north of the town of Dundalk. He attempted to establish a chronology for these problematic structures as well as to identify their main functions. Although they are not confined to Ireland, being found also in western Cornwall, Scotland and Brittany, very few datable finds have been located in association with them. The second major problem is that they also vary greatly in both size and plan, so much so that it has been difficult to isolate their major functions. In Cornwall the fogous (souterrains) are nearly always found in association with surface features, including `rounds' which are broadly similar in function to the ringforts. Thus it has been asserted that they were probably used for storage rather than for any defensive reason. Undoubtedly, some souterrains were used as safe hideaways for the inhabitants of nearby surface settlements because they contain either traps or some form of obstruction to confuse any intruder, such as the fine example at Donaghmore, Co. Louth. We are also lucky to have a dendrochronological date of AD 822 ± 9 for the oak posts which originally supported a roof of oak planks in the chambers of a souterrain at Coolcran, Co. Fermanagh.


In her recent valuable survey of the archaeology of early medieval Ireland, Nancy Edwards takes a negative view of the continuity of clachans and the existence of nucleated settlement: `However, there is as yet little to support these hypotheses in the archaeological record, where, though open and partially enclosed settlements may have housed the lower echelons of society, they do not appear to have been nucleated.' She pointed to the evidence of isolated souterrains that have little or no above-ground features but `from time to time buildings have been successfully located indicating open or only partiallyenclosed settlements with one or more houses and outbuildings'. Some of the souterrains are large and extensive and it has been suggested that they were the refuge centres for unenclosed nucleated settlements above ground. Caution is necessary since aerial photography has revealed crop-marks that show aboveground enclosures around souterrains that had appeared, previously, to have been unenclosed. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that `of the 3,000 examples recorded nationally, only 40% are recorded in association with enclosures'. The dating of souterrains is loose but it is generally felt that they fall in the second half of the first millennium AD. The debate concerning the relationship between souterrain distribution and `tribal' areas is lacking in sophistication - even assuming that `tribal' areas exist for the period in question. Ultimately it will require archaeology to prove or disprove the theory that souterrains, in some locations, are the underground element of unenclosed settlements, and more precise dating will be necessary before discussing the relationship between distribution patterns and communities.


A way of providing secure storage was by constructing a kind of cellar. In Cornwall, it took the form of a stone-lined trench, roofed by a series of lintels, and in this case it could be associated with an individual house (Christie 1978: 314-33). These features are called souterrains and occur also in Brittany. There is no obvious difference between the structures found on these sites and those in the larger enclosures which are usually described as hillforts. Although there are some signs of open settlements during the Early and Middle Iron Ages, enclosures are densely distributed across the landscape and may have been largely self-sufficient. Wheelhouses were sometimes associated with souterrains, but the connection between storage structures and individual dwellings is entirely different from the more centralised system illustrated by hillforts in southern Britain.


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