11 March 2006

Getting down to earth ... in old Co Down

Belfast Telegraph

By Linda McKee

11 March 2006

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have learned how early Christians in Co Down protected themselves from raiders - they went underground.

A 1,000-year-old tunnel system discovered at Rooneystown near Raholp would have been built so that families could take refuge with their valuables when threatened by Vikings.

The mysterious stone tunnel was uncovered by a builder working on new housing after the ground gave way beneath his digger.

Environment and Heritage Service archaeologist Ken Neill confirmed that the tunnel was a previously unrecorded example of a souterrain, built during the early Christian period more than 1,000 years ago.

"Souterrains are usually known as caves or coves throughout the countryside," he said. "They were underground tunnels built as a refuge against raiders. Some were rock-cut, but most were built by digging a trench, lining it with drystone-walling and placing heavy stone lintels across the top before covering with earth.

"It was one of these lintels which had given way under the weight of the digger to expose the souterrain. Many were built within circular earthen raths or stone cashels, but others, like this one, are discovered in apparent isolation although there was almost certainly originally a house nearby." Mr Neill said the design and complexity of the souterrain supports the idea that it was built as a place of refuge from neighbouring tribes or even Viking invaders.

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