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Observations placeholder

Sacred geography – Picts – Souterrains or Step wells 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


The map shows the Souterrains but does NOT distinguish between the mundane and the sacred - step wells


A description of the experience

Dante knew ........

The word Souterrain (from French sous terrain, meaning "under ground") is a name given by archaeologists to a type of underground structure  found in Europe.  Regional names include earth houses, fogous and Pictish houses.  They include a category of sacred structure that, outside of the European context, is known as a Step well and part of sacred geography.  Their use, along with more examples can be found by following the link below.

Not all souterrains are step wells, but all step wells are sacred, as such, of the thousands of underground structures that have been found in Scotland, and Ireland, many can be discounted on sacred grounds as being entirely utilitarian.

It appears that the Pictish step wells were more modest in size in comparison with those in, for example, India, because they were often in rocky areas, or required the builders to excavate the rock.  If the wells were made in soil,  they were dug out and then lined with stone slabs or wood before being reburied. In cases where they were cut into rock this was not necessary.

.... so did  Vergil.....

Despite the fact that archaeologists believe they were not used for ritual purposes, their suggestion that they were food stores seems a little far fetched – who in their right mind, digs a stepped well into solid rock to store their cabbages?  Those who know anything about bush craft know that all you have to do is put them in a porous stone enclosure and pour water over the stones at intervals and evaporation keeps them cool.  Thus those that have required a considerable amount of work to produce are candidates for the ‘sacred’ classification.

Another clue is their closeness to other sacred sites – brochs, crannogs and so on.  In Ireland souterrains are often found near ogham stones, and in some cases the stones have been used or reused as roofing lintels or door posts, most notably at the widened natural limestone fissure at the ‘Cave of the Cats’ in Rathcrogan.

Ireland is particularly rich in what appear to be step wells as opposed to larders.  There is a three-level souterrain at Farrandreg, Co. Louth, and the report of this structure mentions fourteen other similar structures in this county alone.  Donaghmore Souterrain, discovered in County Louth in 1960, and Drumlohan Souterrain, County Waterford are the only souterrains to be an Irish National Monument.

According to Wikipedia
Their distribution is very uneven in Ireland with the greatest concentrations occurring in north Louth, north Antrim, 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.

We could find no Pictish maps of genuine step wells, but we have found an example, see the next observation.


The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps