Dugout (shelter)

Dugout (shelter)
Dugout home near Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940.

A dugout or dug-out, also known as a pithouse, pit-house, earth lodge, mud hut, is a shelter for humans or domesticated animals and livestock based on a hole or depression dug into the ground. These structures are one of the most ancient types of human housing known to archeologists. Dugouts can be fully recessed into the earth, with a flat roof covered by ground, or dug into a hillside. They can also be semi-recessed, with a constructed wood or sod roof standing out. The same methods have evolved into modern "earth shelter" technology.

Dugouts may also be temporary shelters constructed as an aid to specific activities, e.g., during warfare or in hunting. Also, due to the potential for concealment, they may serve as a hiding place for an ambush.




First driven underground by enemies who invaded their country, the Berbers of Matmâta found underground homes the best defense against summer heat.

Asia and the Pacific


Coober Pedy is a small town in northern South Australia, 846 kilometres north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. Located in the Australian outback, the harsh summer temperatures and the dominant industry mean that most residents live in caves excavated[1] into the hillsides and work underground in mine shafts. White Cliffs, New South Wales is similar, both in terms of climate and mining operations.


In north China, especially on the Loess Plateau, caves called yaodongs dug into hillsides have been the traditional dwellings from early times. The advantage of a yaodong over an ordinary house is that it needs little heating in winter and no cooling at all in summer. An estimated 40 million people in northern China live in a yaodong. Many people live in semi-recessed dugout houses in north-western China where hot summer and cold winters prevail. [2]

Europe and the Middle East


The well-preserved cave towns of Crimea are Mangup-Kale, Eski-Kermen, Inkerman and Chufut-Kale. The settlement of Mangup-Kale dates back to the third century AD and was fortified by Justinian I in the mid 500s. It was inhabited and governed primarily by Crimean Goths, and became the center of their autonomous principality. The last inhabitants, a small community of Karaims, abandoned the site in the 1790s.


Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "stones of Matera"). The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself, known locally as "Tufo", which is characteristic of Basilicata and Puglia.


In ancient Scotland, earth houses, also known as yird, Weems and Picts' houses, were underground dwellings, extant even after the Roman evacuation of Britain. Entry was effected by a passage not much wider than a fox burrow, which sloped downwards 10 or 12 ft. to the floor of the house; the inside was oval in shape, and was walled with overlapping rough stone slabs; the roof frequently reached to within a foot of the Earth's surface; they probably served as storehouses, winter quarters, and as places of refuge in times of war. Similar dwellings are found in Ireland.


The most famous feature of the town of Guadix is the cave dwellings in the Barrio


Cappadocia contains at least 36 historical underground cities, carved out of unusual geological formations formed via the eruptions of ancient volcanoes.[3] The cities were initially inhabited by the Hittites, then later by early Christians as hiding places. They are now archeological and tourist sites, but are not generally occupied (see Kaymaklı Underground City). The latest large Turkish underground city was discovered in 2007 in Gaziemir, Güzelyurt. This city was a stopover on the Silk Road, allowing travelers and their camels to rest in safety, underground, in a 'fortress' hotel equivalent to a modern hotel.

World War I

Interior of dugout, Gallipoli, 1915

Dugouts were used extensively as protection from shelling during World War I in the Western Front. They were an important part of the trench warfare as they were used as an area to rest and carry out other activities such as eating. They would usually range in size from dugouts that could hold several men to dugouts that could hold thousands of soldiers. Dugouts such as the Vampire dugout would usually be placed at least 10 metres (33 ft) underground, lined with concrete, wood and/or steel to withstand the shock of artillery, accessed via a set of wooden stairs.

World War II

Zemlyanka used by partisans near Nýrov, Czech Republic, preserved as a WWII memorial

In World War II, partisans, or armed resistance fighters in Eastern Europe sometimes lived in dugouts called zemlyankas (Russian or Ukrainian: Землянка) which were used as underground bunkers to provide shelter and a hiding place from enemies.[4] In Poland they were called ziemianki.

North and South America

Many of the ancient peoples of the American continents built semi-permanent houses of poles and brush plastered with mud over a shallow pit in the earth. As these pithouses were very similar to those first built in northeastern Europe 25,000 years ago, pithouse technology may have been carried to the Americas by early nomadic settlers, traveling first through Siberia, and then across the ice bridge between Asia and North America about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.

An individual pithouse was occupied for an average of about 15 years. By more modern standards, these dwellings were cramped and dark. The centralized hearth created a smoky, cold environment during the winter. Most pithouses are associated with an open air plaza or rooftop where inhabitants carried out most of their daily activities during good weather. In areas suitable for intensive agriculture, groups of pithouses clustered to create communities of varying sizes.

American Northwest

In the Interior Plateau of the British Columbia and in the Columbia Plateau of the Pacific Northwest the remains of a form of pit-house called a quiggly hole or kekuli are common, and come in large groups named quiggly towns, which are correspondingly the remains of ancient villages.

American Southwest

Pithouses were very common structures in the American Southwest during the early and middle periods of the Anasazi, Mogollon and Hohokam cultures, and were also found in cultures extending north and west of the Colorado plateau. The emergence of the pithouse marks the transition between a nomadic hunting-and-gathering livelihood and a settled agricultural way of life which also relied on wild plants and animals for food. Pithouse structures were probably the forerunners of the kivas built later in the Pueblo periods, and share many characteristics with them.

Although the architectural styles used by these people evolved throughout their history, the pithouse remained a basic residential structure. Pithouses are found in isolated rural settings, in conjunction with above ground dwellings and adjacent to the large multi-room cliff dwellings characteristic of the region. Historian Linda Cordell notes that ...the late pithouses are often clues to relatively short-term changes in settlement location and adjustment to climatic fluctuations. (Cordell, p. 164) This appears to be true among the modern Pueblo peoples as well. When the Hopi village of Bacavi was founded in 1909, some groups of people arrived in the late autumn. As there was a limited window of time for building, the new arrivals built pithouses as warm shelters for the winter. Some of these homes remained occupied until the 1970s.

Pithouses were built by excavating a well defined hole into the ground, usually around 6" to 18" deep but occasionally as deep as four to five feet, and creating walls and roof using a pole and adobe technology. The sunken floor of the dwelling is below the frost line and helps moderate both winter and summer temperatures, with the mass of the ground serving as an insulator. In addition, adobe walls gather heat during the day and release it when temperatures drop. The earliest pithouses were round, and varied in size between nine and twenty-five feet in diameter. Around AD 700, pithouse designs became more individualized. Excavations reveal examples based on squares, rectangles and shapes similar to the letter D.

A reconstruction shows the pit dug below ground, four supporting posts, roof structure as a layers of wood and mud, and entry through the roof; Step House ruins at Mesa Verde National Park.

These homes were also warmed by a centralized hearth, a fire pit with an air deflector, and side vents and a hole in the roof provided fresh air and evacuated smoke. The placement of the home's entrance varied by locality and archaeological period. Early homes utilized the ventilation stack as an egress by means of a ladder. Later homes expanded the pit into a keyhole shape to create a low sheltered entrance. Interior space was often loosely divided into two rooms, one for storing personal and dry goods and the other as living quarters. Many pithouses included an antechamber, containing storage bins or pits.

Pithouse construction was usually based on four corner posts positioned upright in the pit. These posts were carefully chosen and trimmed to create a branch or fork at the top as a structural support. They were joined by horizontal beams and crossed with ceiling joists. The interior sides of the pit were plastered with clay or lined with stone — either large slabs wedged upright in the soil or courses of smaller stones. The exterior of the pithouse was formed of branches, packed tree bark, or brush and grass. A thick layer of mud on the outside of the roof and walls protected the shelter from the weather. Often the initial mud layer was carefully plastered with a lighter colored clay.

A large number of pithouses have been archaeologically excavated throughout the American Southwest. Reproductions of these basic family structures exist in museums and tourist information sites, such as the structure at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. National and state parks and monuments showcase pithouse ruins and may include authentic reconstructions such as the Ancient Pueblo structure at Step House ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Fremont Indian State Park in Utah, and a Hohokam structure at the Hardy Site in Tucson, Arizona.

Sod Houses

During the American Civil War, the federal United States government passed the Homestead Act offering free land for those who could "prove up" their claims by living on the land and farming it for a prescribed number of years. Settlers on the newly opened Great Plains found there were not enough trees to build familiar log cabins. As shelter was essential, the frontier farmer utilized ribbons of the thick prairie sod cut as they plowed their virgin land. The strip could be cut into two foot sections, four to six inches deep, to make an almost perfect building block with good insulating properties.

These first homes, often called soddies, were simply small rooms dug into the side of a low rolling hill. The walls were built up with sod blocks to a height of seven or eight feet. Holes were left for purchased doors and windows hauled from the nearest town or railroad point. Cottonwood poles were laid side by side to form a support for a roof made of a thick layer of coarse prairie grass. Over this was carefully fitted a double layer of the sod building blocks. Rain helped the sod to grow and soon the dugout roof was covered with waving grass. Some frontier families found that their cows grazed on their roof, and occasionally had them "drop in" for dinner.[citation needed]

The floor of the dugout home was of dirt or rough wooden planks. Walls were lined with newspapers pasted or pinned up with small, sharpened sticks to keep dirt from flaking into the home's interior. Some families used fabric on their walls while others created a plaster coating from local limestone and sand. Some were carpeted and other variations included building on a second room for school teachers or guests. Heating could be provided by burning buffalo chips or cow chips.[5] The home's comfort and structural stability were maximized when the structure was located on the south side of a low hill, with adequate drainage to provide run-off for rain and melting snow. Most pioneer dugouts had a very short life, being replaced by plank or rock homes when farmers had both time and money to create larger, more traditional homes. However, even when a family did build a house of logs or boards, their domestic animals would often continue to be sheltered in a sod dugout.

In frontier Canada, dugout style shelters were also used by pioneers and settlers. In these cases, the shelter's construction closely reflected the cultures of the various settlers. They ranged from the French-Canadian–style caveaux to the Ukrainian burdei.

See also



  • Cordell, Linda S. Ancient Pueblo Peoples. St. Remy Press, Montreal and Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., 1994. ISBN 0-89599-038-5
  • Rohn, Arthur H. and Ferguson, William M, 2006, Puebloan Ruins of the Southwest, University of New Mexico Press, Albuqureque NM, ISBN 0-82663-39070-0 (pbk. : alk. paper). Pithouse architecture is discussed on pp. 30-33. Animage similar to the above reconstruction appears on p. 32.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopædia.

Further reading

  • Cass G. Barns, The Sod House (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1930).
  • Donald E. Green, ed., Rural Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).
  • Everett Dick, Conquering the Great American Desert (Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society,1975).
  • Grant Foreman, A History of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1945).
  • LeRoy R. Hafen and Carl Coke Rister, Western America: The Exploration, Settlement, and Development of the Region Beyond the Mississippi (New York: * Prentice-Hall, 1941).
  • Veda Giezentanner, "In Dugouts and Sod Houses," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 39 (Summer 1961).
  • English Literature

External links

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  • dugout — noun 1》 a trench that is roofed over as a shelter for troops.     ↘an underground bomb shelter.     ↘a low shelter at the side of a sports field for a team s coaches and substitutes. 2》 (also dugout canoe) a canoe made from a hollowed tree trunk …   English new terms dictionary

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