If you looked at yesterday’s photos of Tintagel, and read all the tooltip captions and the post tags, you might have noticed that I described one of them as showing a souterrain; or, at least, a souterrain-ish thing. Noone, as far as I know, calls it a souterrain; and I’m not entirely sure why.
I could be wrong here. I don’t have access to an academic library, or a big pile of archaeological literature on the place. So I’m not sure that noone, ever, has said there’s a souterrain at Tintagel. I haven’t found anything yet, though.*
A souterrain is a fairly common thing in British and French archeology. It’s an underground passage, with a bend in the middle. They’re generally found in France, Cornwall, and north-east Scotland; although in Cornwall they’re called fogous. There are scattered examples elsewhere as well. Noone really knows what they’re for. There are plenty of ideas, but all of the ideas have flaws. You could store food there, but it probably wouldn’t keep well, as souterrains don’t have great drainage. Animals: the same problem, and they’d be too awkward for anything other than poultry or sheep to go in and out of. You could hide in it – but attackers would be pretty stupid to go away without checking the big hole in the ground coming out twenty yards from your house. So, noone really knows what they’re for. We could go back to the standard archaeological “I don’t know why this is here” standby – “it had a ritual purpose” – but frankly, we may as well just admit that we don’t know what they were for.
The thing that British souterrains generally have in common, though, is that they were dug in earth. Some may have had above-ground roofs at some point. Most probably had multiple phases of building and rebuilding;** and most were stone-lined at some point in their lives. They had corbelled roofs. A corbelled vault is a bit like an arched vault, but is less sophisticated, and a lot less stable.***
The Tintagel passage, though, isn’t dug into earth. It’s tunnelled through bedrock, with metal-edged tools – which fits the presumed dates of the other souterrains and fogous out there. It has a similar profile to a corbelled vault, but it isn’t one. It’s the right sort of size, though, and it has the characteristic bend in the middle. The bedrock, though, is so far as I can see the only “not a souterrain” factor to it. It’s in the middle of a medieval castle – but a medieval castle built on a site that had been occupied for hundreds of years previously. It’s on top of a rocky headland – if you did want to build a classic earth-dug souterrain, you’d be a bit stuffed, because there isn’t enough depth of earth to tunnel into. Nevertheless, to my eye, it looks just like it should be listed as one, even though the local materials and circumstances were different. Archaeology can be a strange thing, sometimes.
* If you search the web for the phrase tintagel souterrain, yesterday’s post is the top hit already.
** but what long-use buildings don’t?
*** Which is why they’re not used any more. It looks a bit like an arch, but solely with horizontal courses of stone. Wikipedia has some explanatory diagrams.