In archaeology, a small underground chamber, often lined and roofed with boulders or stone slabs. Dating from prehistoric to historic times, they are found along the northern boundaries of the Old World as far as Scandinavia, in China, Korea, Japan, Iceland, Greenland, North America, and most countries in Europe. A wide variety of forms were used for permanent habitation, refuge, or storage.
The use of souterrains probably spread to the British Isles from western Gaul in France. Structures found in the Morbihan, Brittany, date from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and are similar to those known as fogous in Cornwall, and the Scottish weems, or earth-houses, such as those near Arbroath. Thousands of souterrains are found in Ireland, where they were widely used AD 500–1100 and during later periods of unrest.
In Scotland, ironsmiths inhabited a large souterrain forming part of the early Iron Age settlement at Jarlshof, Shetland. In the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides, souterrains form part of prehistoric wheel-shaped houses, and appear to be associated with the broch (stone tower) building cultures of the Bronze Age.
Underground dwellings are also associated with a prehistoric courtyard style of house, as found at Chysauster, near Penzance, Cornwall, which was occupied late in the early Iron Age and in the Roman period.
Historical writing The Roman leader Julius Caesar noted that the Celts stored their grain in underground granaries. However, souterrains should not be confused with the pit dwellings and storage pits of the early Iron Age, common in southern England, where the floor level lies below the surrounding ground level. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his account of the Germanic people, recorded that they dug underground pits, covered them with a heap of dung, and used them as a refuge, but his description may apply to refuge in caves.