A fresh look at Orkney’s earth-houses

The interior of the Rennibister earth-house, in Firth.

Orkney’s prehistoric earth-houses have been sorely neglected over the years.

These structures – generally known elsewhere in Britain as souterrains – are usually made up of a long, underground entrance passage, which leads to a subterranean round chamber. A handful were “investigated” by antiquarians in the 19th century but even work at the two finest remaining examples – Grain, in Kirkwall, and Rennibister, in Firth – left many unanswered questions.

Their association with what were thought to be overhead houses led to the long-held assumption that they had a purely domestic function – usually storage.

But this explanation has never really satisfied many. There was one obvious question. Why go to the trouble of constructing elaborate, difficult-to-access underground chambers just for storage. There was no need.

Then, the discovery of the remains of 18 people in the Rennibister earth-house really muddied the waters. Thereafter, further work on earth-houses was unfortunately lacking.

But now, after three years work on an earth-house at Windwick, in South Ronaldsay, a clearer picture of the structures’ role in Orcadian prehistory is beginning to emerge.

This role, suggests Martin Carruthers, had as much to do with ritual, and in particular the dead, than a place to stash that season’s crops.

Martin, who is studying Orkney’s subterranean structures for his PHD, led the first excavation of an undisturbed earth-house in “modern” times. With the benefits of the latest archaeological techniques, the excavations have revealed much about these puzzling structures. At Windwick, for example, it became clear that the underground structure and the associated above-ground building were planned from the outset and built together – some time in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age.

The upper building had a south-east facing entrance and the lack of domestic features, such as a permanent hearth, seems to indicate that it was not a dwelling – at least not in the normal sense. Once inside, it would also have become very clear there was something beneath.

Martin explained: “The clay the builders used to cap the roof of the souterrain was a completely different colour to that used for the floor of the above ground structure. So to anyone inside, the outline of the structure below the ground would have been clearly marked and very obvious.“

The upper building also seems to have been designed to force the visitor to move in a specific manner. Because of internal stone partitions, anyone wanting to enter the souterrain had to move around the upper building in a clockwise fashion.

This “with the sun” movement is common in much of Orkney’s later traditions and superstitions, generally symbolising life and well-being. Once down into the darkness of the souterrain, however, the visitor followed an anti-clockwise – against the sun – path. An apparently clear distinction between the roles, and symbolism, of the two structures.

Despite the lack of a formal hearth above ground, evidence of a number of temporary “campfires” was found in the earth-house. It also had a number of pits cut into the floor that contained cramp – a vitreous slag-like material – and cremated human remains.

The cremations included traces of steatite-tempered pottery, that, upon investigation seems to have been imported from Shetland – perhaps specifically for the cremation.

There were also cremation deposits, possibly human, incorporated in the roof of the souterrain. This, said Martin, definitely hints at some sort of ritualised behaviour.

In the underground chamber were broken saddle querns, along with rubbing stones. Why would these domestic items have found their way into a ritual building? Were the rough cremated remains being ground into finer particles before their deposition? The evidence suggests they were.

Martin said: “The cremated materials were very small and very fine, which seems to indicate that they were using these querns to grind down the remains. This would explain the presence of the querns in the structure – they were specifically involved in rites surrounding the dead.

“Once used for this activity, however, the querns were deliberately broken – ritually killed perhaps? Were they seen as somehow polluted? Associated with, or touched by, the dead.”

Then, at the end of its lifetime, the underground chamber was deliberately sealed off.

Part of this ritual included the incorporation of a rectangular pot in the material used to block off the entrance.

What was the significance of the cremations? Were they perhaps reusing cremations from earlier burials, incorporating the remains of the dead in their own structure?

This ties in with archaeological evidence throughout Orkney that shows how Bronze Age and Iron Age people often reused sites from the Neolithic. These reworkings of the earlier monuments were generally done in a fashion that avoided “disturbing” the occupants – hinting at a continued reverence for those who had gone before.

At Windwick this also appears to be the case.

A large lintel stone from the souterrain was decorated with eight circular “cup” marks. Covered over by the clay cap, these were not visible during the chamber’s “everyday” use.

Also under this clay was a series of plough marks, where the stone had been damaged. Because these preceded the covering clay, Martin suggests the stone might have been incorporated into the building because it was part of an earlier, possible Neolithic, structure.

So from all this, what does it tell us about Orkney’s earth-houses?

From what’s been found, and looking again at the recorded accounts of earlier investigations, it certainly seems that the souterrains were in some way associated with the dead. But this association doesn’t automatically mean they were necessarily used to store, or inter, human remains.

Instead, were the chambers seen as symbolic “underworlds”? Places apart from the realm of the living, with their own distinct role and significance to those who used them.

Although this appears to contradict the earlier excavations of earth-houses in Orkney, Martin’s investigations have shown this not to be the case. Most sources cite the Rennibister earth-house as an anomaly because it was found to contain human bodies. But re-examining early reports Martin has found that a number of others did actually contain remains, and even Rennibister’s “haphazard” inhumation was not as random as most now believe.

The earth-houses, he explained, have architectural traits that show a clear connection to the underground “wells” found in some brochs, as well as Minehowe – perhaps Orkney’s best-known subterranean structure.

This definitely shifts the emphasis away from domestic into the “shadowy realm” of ritual and religion. In this respect, Martin believes the chambers were related to rites of passage. An initiation, or trial chamber, for example, used for occasions such as coming of age rituals.

Anthropological studies have shown that these types of rituals often involve ordeals, such as sensory deprivation or fasting. Combined with this, did the underground chambers represent some sort of link to the dead – or ancestors?

Used intermittently, as and when required, this could explain the domestic artefacts uncovered at other sites. After all, you don’t have to live somewhere permanently to produce refuse and domestic material.

Future work on these enigmatic structures will hopefully continue to illuminate the darkness.

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