Shelters in the Ground

By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator

Some of the most memorable and stunning pieces of humanity are the towering structures from the past—the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the Walls of Great Zimbabwe, or the Ha’amonga’ ‘a Maui. Though beautiful and important, there are equally impressive human structures that are located under the ground.

Long ago, humans preferred to live in shelters that were in the ground rather than on top of it. Subterranean homes make insulation easier by keeping the shelter warm and comfortable in the winter and cool in the summer. They are safer from weather or harsh conditions like high winds. Shelters in the ground often saved on resources because the walls were earth, rather than made out of mined resources, like stone, or gathered resources, like wood. Many modern houses have subterranean levels too, with a basement to house essential appliances like heaters, extra freezers, or a safe spot to hide in bad weather. As we talk about fascinating shelters in the ground, think about how they compare to a shelter above the ground.

Chauvet Cave

Paintings in Chauvet Cave (photo from: https://www.thoughtco.com/chauvet-cave-france-170488)

Chauvet Cave is located in France, and though the cave itself is extremely old, archaeologists have evidence that humans occupied it over 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists love caves because of their ability to protect their inhabitants. Caves can shelter artifacts and rock art for thousands or even tens of thousands of years, leaving history completely undisturbed and perfectly preserved. Chauvet Cave is one of these places and features beautiful paintings of ochre on the walls.

Chauvet Cave is important because it has artwork that is 36,000 years old, far older than any other known cave painting. It sports images of animals that are now extinct and help scientist better understand what human life was like in the past.  Though many caves were used primarily as shelters, some were used for spiritual purposes. Are there any spaces in your home that serve a religious function in any way? How do you think people stored things or slept in caves like Chauvet? How do the paintings in these caves compare with the decorations on your walls in your home?

Use these links to explore: https://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/en/explore-cave/brunel-chamber-south , https://artsandculture.google.com/project/chauvet-cave

Skara Brae

Skara Brae site (photo from https://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/unique-experiences-map/discovering-an-ancient-village/)

We don’t know how to pronounce this one properly either, but Skara Brae is a significant ancient shelter built into the ground. It is located in Northern Scotland in the Orkney Islands and was occupied between 3200 and 2200 BCE. The site of Skara Brae is quite small, consisting of eight different buildings connected through passages, or tunnels. Thanks to the covering of sediment for thousands of years, this site is remarkably well-preserved, and archaeologists have learned a great deal about shelters and people from this moment in history.

Due to their protection from the elements, the buildings of Skara Brae still have original ceilings and walls intact. These homes are fairly uniform and have large, square rooms with a hearth in the center, sleeping areas off to one side and a built-in storage compartment on the other. Based on archaeological evidence, these homes were not just for sleeping. Through excavations, archaeologists have found items like game dice, tools, beautifully carved stone objects, and jewelry. These findings suggest that this site was very much a home in the same way we think of them in modern times. Though living in a small, subterranean room may seem strange to some, think about the similarities between you and a Scottish family from 5000 years ago. Do you have dice with which to play family games? Do you have an area of your home dedicated to storing important things like a family heirloom? Do you or your children enjoy making crafts or jewelry at home? Though it may look and feel different, Skara Brae can show us just how similar we are to those who came before us—especially during lockdowns!

Check out this link to see and learn more: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/the-heart-of-neolithic-orkney/NwJixX2iXBpFJQ

Pit Houses

An example of a pit house (photo from: https://www.crowcanyon.org/EducationProducts/peoples_mesa_verde/basketmaker_III_housing.asp)

Unlike Skara Brae, pit houses were commonly used across the Great Basin area of North America. It is a subterranean home that starts with a deep and wide rectangular pit that later has a roof of strong, wooden beams covered with bark, brush, and grass to provide protection and warmth to those living inside. A ladder would provide access to the home through an opening that also served as a hole for smoke to escape when a fire was built in the center of the home.

These homes were usually circular and started with a deep pit dug into the earth. The depth helped to provide a cool and stable temperature in the summer and a warm and safe temperature in the winter. Pit houses would typically house around two families, but the size and number of people were dependent on the culture that built it. People had woven mats of reeds or grasses and blankets to make it more comfortable while using baskets around the pit house for storage purposes. Are there any ways in which your home is similar to a pit house? Are there areas of your home that you need a ladder or set of stairs to access? Are there parts of your home, like the basement, that takes advantage of its location underground for insulation? Is there a part of your home that relies on an efficient storage system?

Use this link to see more images of pit houses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkdQ3g8df18

Earthlodges

An earth lodge (photo from: https://www.nps.gov/knri/learn/historyculture/earthlodge.htm)

Earth lodges are our last example of shelters in the ground for this blog. They are commonly found in the Plains region of North America. Earth lodges are impressive structures because, though they are in the ground, a large part of the roof extends upwards and out of the ground. A complete earthlodge was a massive undertaking and structure, being between fifteen to thirty feet in radius and over ten feet high. The roof was supported by wooden beams with a thick layer of soil, branches, and grass to form the roof that was so solid that people could walk and sit on top of it.

Around twenty individuals lived inside. Their personal belongings were stored near or under the beds that hugged the inner wall while the focal point of the shelter was the central hearth. The earthlodge also had a shrine located along the inner wall for spiritual and religious acts. Though an earthlodge may seem quite different, many components overlap with shelters today. Do you have a shrine or religious corner within your home? Is it possible to sit or walk on your roof? Are your sleeping areas relegated to your home’s outer areas while the main area is dedicated to sitting together, perhaps next to a fire or cooking area?

See more here: https://www.nps.gov/knri/learn/historyculture/earthlodge.htm

Shelters in the ground are uncommon in modern-day life in favor of living above ground in a house or apartment. However, that does not mean the core aspects of these homes do not carry over or that they did not take advantage of the type of environment they were in. Homes in the ground, whether caves or homes dug into the earth, occupy an essential part of life, culture, and architecture that is important today.

http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/

https://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/skara-brae-prehistoric-village-p247671

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/skara-brae/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/france-chauvet-cave-makes-grand-debut-180954582/

http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/

https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-houses/pit-house.htm

https://nativeamericans.mrdonn.org/plateau/homes.html