Archaeology

Bold Explorer Enters Underground Souterrain Tunnels Exposed By Farmer

An amateur explorer has released a video of himself exploring a hitherto lost underground “souterrain” chamber. But the journey he filmed inside this strange place is not for the claustrophobic among you.

If you go to Amsterdam, you might see hotels offering reduced room rates in “souterrains.” In The Netherlands, the word means basement, however, in an archaeological context the word refers to underground caverns built from stone and generally used as dairy and grain storage rooms.

Amateur explorer and outdoor fanatic Joe Thompson from County Dublin in Ireland has just become the first person “in centuries” to explore an ancient souterrain about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) north-northeast of Dublin.

A view of a passage that turns left in the long-lost ancient Irish souterrain that amateur explorer Joe Thompson recently entered. (Joe Thompson / Dublin Gazette)

A view of a passage that turns left in the long-lost ancient Irish souterrain that amateur explorer Joe Thompson recently entered. ( Joe Thompson / Dublin Gazette )

Souterrains For Hiding From Vikings or For Hiding Vikings?

The latest souterrain was originally identified by Joe Thompson’s friend, Denis, in a cauliflower field. In agriculture, prior to planting seeds, a “harrow” is used after ploughing to break up soil “clods” and smooth out the surface of the soil (tilth). It was a harrow that Denis used to accidentally turn the first stone of the souterrain’s roof, revealing the ancient tunnel system .

Joe Thompson is from Donabate, which is about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) north-northeast of Dublin, on the east coast of Ireland. He and a group of friends recently explored the site of the medieval souterrain, and Joe published a video sharing his exploration experience, while another local, Eamonn Willeth has also ventured in the passageways.

The discovery of the souterrain featured in Joe Thompson’s video has been reported to the Fingal County Council and to the National Monuments Service and last week they sent a representative to visit the site to assess the discovery.

However, according to a report in the Dublin Gazette archaeologists in Ireland said this long lost underground network of tunnels represents a space for storing foodstuffs, and a “hiding place from Vikings.”

Most Irish Souterrains were built in the 9th-12th centuries AD

While they are most often marked on ordnance survey maps as “caves,” the oldest known Irish word for souterrain is the Proto-Celtic “uaimh” (cave). Over 1,000 such uaimhs, or souterrains, are known across Ireland, and there are another 18 in County Dublin. Most souterrains in Ireland were built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.

It is generally agreed that these stone structures were designed to store food at moderate temperatures, beneath the ground. However, they also served as “secret hiding places” during the early 9th-century-AD Viking raids of Ireland .

And as if discovering such an ancient chamber wasn’t enough, Joe Thompson believes he’s identified “ ogham” script in the chamber, which peaked in usage between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.

Another view of part of the ancient souterrain that Joe Thompson crawled through and videoed. ( Joe Thompson / Dublin Gazette )

Alternative Interpretations Of Ireland’s Subterranean Stone Chambers

An Irish Times article from back in 2002 says most scholars believe souterrains were built and used between circa 500-1200 AD. However, in the 2001 book “ The Souterrains of Ireland” researcher and author Mark Clinton challenges these dates presenting a slightly later construction period of between circa 750 AD and 1200 AD.

But what was really interesting about Clinton’s book was rather than associating these buildings with food storage, the author said souterrains in Ireland were built by “ monks returning from Europe .” In Clinton’s opinion, some of these subterranean stone chambers started out as early Christian sacred sites for reclusive monastic contemplation and prayer.

Clinton’s book provides a county-by-county inventory of Ireland’s souterrains. And supporting his idea that some of Ireland’s souterrains were sacred in nature, and in some cases deeply-ancient, he writes that the County Meath souterrains represent “a major part of the complex of passage tomb complexes” that were built between 3,000 and 3,500 BC.

Joe Thompson claims to have possibly identified ogham script in the newly discovered Irish souterrain, and in 2001 writer Clinton described many other “ogham-inscribed stones used as lintels” in what he also called “hiding places.”

The Ogham Script Thompson “Saw” Complicates Things

An article in the Irish Independent says Peadar Bates, a local historian, has already viewed the alleged “souterrain” site. However, he said the food storage, or souterrain hypothesis, is “complicated” by the appearance of the ogham script.

Peadar concluded that if this is indeed Ogham script, the stone structure was “certainly built before 1100 AD, and possibly much older.” And therefore, the original purpose of this particular souterrain site near Dublin may have been entirely sacred at first and a storage space at some later period.

Top image: Three different images of the recently discovered souterrain underground tunnel system north-northeast of Dublin, Ireland. The middle image was the discovery of the roof in a cauliflower field. Source: Joe Thompson / Dublin Gazette

By Ashley Cowie


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