Possible Iron Age underground souterrain discovered in Orkney

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A previously unknown subterranean structure, either a souterrain or a ‘well’ dating from the Iron Age has been unearthed near the manse of Harray in West Mainland, Orkney.

The structure consists of a short low ceilinged entrance passage that opens into a larger partially corbelled chamber that is square-shaped in plan.

The design is of similar comparison to the underground chamber at East Broch of Burray, and, indeed, quite similar to the ‘well’ chamber found under the nearby broch at manse of Harray in the 19thCentury.

The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent, as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber suggests that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber.

Martin Carruthers writes, “I had the opportunity to inspect the subterranean structure along-side Orkney’s county archaeologist Julie Gibson, and marvel at the beautifully accomplished stonework and architecture.

Entrance to the subterranean structure -
Entrance to the subterranean structure – Archaeology Institute UHI

Peering inside the entirely roofed, pristine structure we could see that, although this site was hitherto unknown to officialdom, it has been discovered previously, in the Victorian period, as the whole of the interior is covered in 19th Century rubbish, iron kettles, pots, glass bottles, marmalade jars and imported French mustard jars!

Much of the Victorian material probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually it’s often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents.


The Victorian rubbish is a snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value.  What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of.  So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney.

Archaeology Institute UHI

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