A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (“table”), although there are also more complex variants. Most date from the early Neolithic (4000–3000 BC). Dolmens were typically covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. In many instances, that covering has weathered away, leaving only the stone “skeleton” of the burial mound intact.
It remains unclear when, why, and by whom the earliest dolmens were made. The oldest known dolmens are in Western Europe, where they were set in place around 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists still do not know who erected these dolmens, which makes it difficult to know why they did it. They are generally all regarded as tombs or burial chambers, despite the absence of clear evidence for this. Human remains, sometimes accompanied by artefacts, have been found in or close to the dolmens which could be scientifically dated using radiocarbon dating. However, it has been impossible to prove that these remains date from the time when the stones were originally set in place.
The photos above were taken by me many years ago of a Souterrain beside the Cushendall Rd at Drumnakeel near Ballycastle in North Antrim. This was my first encounter with these structures and it fired my enthusiasm for this history and archaeology of my native country which continues till today. I intend to re-visit this place soon and update my photographs.
Souterrains are often referred to locally in Ireland simply as ‘caves’. A. T. Lucas, a folklorist and Director of the National Museum of Ireland in the 1960s, published a series of articles on the references to souterrains in the early Irish annals. Donaghmore Souterrain, discovered in County Louth in 1960, and Drumlohan Souterrain, County Waterford are the only souterrains to be an Irish National Monument.
In Ireland souterrains are often found inside or in close proximity to a ringfort and as such are thought to be mainly contemporary with them, making them somewhat later in date than in other countries. This date is reinforced by many examples where ogham stones, dating to around the 6th Century have been reused as roofing lintels or door posts, most notably at the widened natural limestone fissure at the ‘Cave of the Cats’ in Rathcrogan. Their distribution is very uneven in Ireland with the greatest concentrations occurring in North Louth, North Antrim, Sligo, South Galway, and West Cork and Kerry. Lesser numbers are found in Counties Meath, Westmeath, Mayo, North Donegal, and Waterford. Other counties, such as Limerick, Carlow, and Wexford, are almost completely lacking in examples.
An article by Warner on the archaeology of souterrains, although published 38 years ago, is still possibly the best general overview of the subject.
The most comprehensive study of Irish souterrains is M. Clinton’s 2001 work, containing chapters on distribution, associated settlements, function, finds, chronology and no less than thirteen appendices on various structural aspects of souterrains themselves.
An article in Archaeology Ireland Autumn 2017 gives an account of souterrains in Ireland being used in more recent times for a somewhat more sinister purpose. The reader can speculate.