Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘souterrain’

Goose chase

In which we get pessimistic about self-expression

Have spent today on a wild goose chase around the county. In one sense: a bad thing, because nothing productive at all got done. In another: a good thing, noone could bother me,* so I had some time to think to myself, and plot things. I started writing a film treatment in my head; the challenge will be to get it on paper in some way that resembles my mind’s-eye view. Which is hard. It reminds me of a passage on writing by Tibor Fischer:

The ideas, the visions that turned his ignition were exciting but it was like taking a pebble out of a river where it gleamed and watching it became matt and boring. Pataki tried to splash with ink the invisible men that only he could see, so that others could detect their outlines, but he always missed and was merely left with a mess

(from Under The Frog, p32 in the Penguin edition)

Someone recently searched for: “how to build a souterrain”. Which is an interesting idea. As far as I know, noone’s tried to build a souterrain for a millennium or two, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a go, if you have enough land. You can go for cut-and-cover fairly easily: dig a banana-shaped trench, maybe about twenty or thirty feet long, down to about eight feet or so in depth,** and pop a roof of some kind, probably turf or thatch, over the top. In soil it’s probably a lot safer than a shallow tunnel, unless you really know what you’re up to. In rock, it’s a lot of work.

Another thing that’s been searched for recently: “feeling absolutely drained of all energy”. I couldn’t agree more. And so to bed.

* “Sorry, the battery on my hands-free headset has run out”

** I hope you realise I’m pulling these measurements off the top of my head, rather than looking up archaeological reports and so on.


In which we’re puzzled over Tintagel and an archaeological definition

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.


In which we visit Cornwall

This June was originally going to be Photo Month on this site, given the oodles of photos I took on holiday. Unfortunately, I took so many photos on holiday,* I still haven’t managed to sort through them all yet.

Here’s a few, to be going on with. The Tintagel area. I have more to write about Tintagel.

Medieval arch, Tintagel

Souterrain-like tunnel, Tintagel

Beach, Tintagel

Beach, Tintagel

Church, Tintagel

* 803 in total