An Iron Age underground structure.
Souterrain (from the French ‘sous terrain’, meaning ‘underground’) is the archaeological name for a type of underground structure associated mainly with the European Atlantic Iron Age that may have been used for storage. Over 500 have been found in Scotland, of which around 20 are on the Isle of Skye.
One of these can be found at Shanzie near Alyth where excavations unearthed a structure 35 metres long and roughly c-shaped. Whilst the souterrain itself has been sealed, you can see the mound that remains from the road.
Finds during the excavation included several types of late prehistoric pottery; a fragment of Roman pottery; an amber ring, the amber of which probably originated in the Baltic; a pair of tweezers; a brooch or clasp; two copper alloy rings; and a fragment from a quern stone. The souterrain had been broken into during the medieval and Victorian periods.
Souterrians were constructed by digging out a chamber, lining the sides with stone, then roofing it over with more stone and then recovering it with earth. The end result was a stone-lined passage leading to a chamber.
It is still not known for certain what role the souterrains played in the Iron Age societies that built them. It has been suggested they were refuges to be used if the settlement was under attack, although there is more consensus that they were built as winter storage for butter, cheese and other foodstuffs, without which the local residents would be unable to survive through to the following spring.
Some archaeologists think they may also have had a ritual dimension to their construction. Their entrance passages for example are often accentuated by twists, turns or kinks and turn in an anti-clockwise direction (against the sun’s movement), when almost all above ground built space in the Iron Age is laid out in a clock-wise direction (with the sun’s movement).