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  Orkney's Underground 'Earth-houses'

A prehistoric enigma

An enigmatic type of prehistoric structure found in Orkney goes by the uninspiring title of "earth-house". Dating from the late Bronze and and early Iron Age, these earth-houses - generally known as souterrains elsewhere in Britain - usually comprise of a long, underground entrance passage leading to a round chamber.

Some British souterrains are visible above ground, but the Orcadian versions are completely subterranean. Sometimes, as in the case of the Grain earth-house, the chambers were built quite deep underground.

These chambers, of which two fine Orcadian examples remain open to the public, date from sometime in the first millennium BC. Why they were built, and what they were used for, however, remains a topic of debate. The discovery of the remains of 18 people in the Rennibister earth house in Firth really muddied the waters in this respect.

Until recently, there was little modern excavation work concentrating on Orkney’s earth houses, but their association with domestic structures, i.e. houses, led to the assumption they too had a purely domestic function - usually storage.

But there are problems with this interpretation.

Firstly, there is a distinct lack of evidence to show what, if anything, was ever stored in the chambers. Secondly, as any modern visitor will attest, there are obvious difficulties involved in accessing the underground chamber.

Recent excavations however, would indicate the earth-houses were not mere storerooms but had a more ritualistic, or religious, purpose.

After three years work on an earth-house at Windwick, in South Ronaldsay, it would appear that earth-houses had as much to do with ritual, and in particular the dead, than a place to stash that season's crops.

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The guidebooks suggest that a visit to these earth houses is not for the claustrophobic.

If the thought of crawling on your knees through the entrance chamber of a chambered tomb is unpleasant, descending into the depths of the earth via a narrow, low tunnel will undoubtedly be too much.

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