“It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth and the tenth tier [of bricks]. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said–
“Ha! ha! ha! –a very good joke, indeed –an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo… let us be gone.”
“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
…I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!”
From Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”
In this spine tingling tale, Poe tells the story of a man from a wealthy noble family, Montresor, who aims to seek revenge on another noble known as Fortunado. Montresor lures Fortunado into a large cellar, stating that he has a special cask of very old and delicious wine. Once within the tomb, Fortunado is chained to a wall, and Montresor seals up this portion of the cellar with bricks. Based on his final words, we know that Fortunado died within the walls and that no one found his body.
This process is known as immurement. It is a form of execution where an individual is walled up within a building, cave or structure and is left to die of either starvation or dehydration. This is not like being buried alive where often the cause of death is asphyxiation and the burial is accidental.
In ancient Rome this seemed to be a popular method of executing women. Vestal virgins were technically protected from all harm and were not allowed to be killed. So when one broke their vows of chastity they were immured in caves or catacombs as punishment for their lustful ways. This way they were punished but no one could claim direct cause of their death. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Antonia Minor, widow of Drusus the Elder, locked her adulterous and conspiring daughter Livilla in a room until she died of starvation. The family of Livilla’s brother Germanicus were also executed by immurement by Tiberius.
In fact, immurement appears throughout folklore in Eastern Europe. One of the most famous cases was that of Elizabeth Báthory, also known as the Blood Countess. She is recorded to have murdered over 600 adolescent women in Hungary from 1585 and 1610. In 1611 she was put on trial and convicted of countless murders. She was sentenced to a form of immurement within her own castle. The countess was walled up in a tower and had only a small slit in the door for drink and food. Somehow she survived for four years like this, found dead in 1614. Other acts of immurement include rumors of children and women buried alive in foundation walls as a sacrifice to protect the building.
Could we find this in archaeology? Probably! But will we be able to actually identify it when we see it? That’s a little more difficult. Bah (1985) found evidence of human sacrifice in the building of large forts in the Republic of Mali. At Banankoro, MacDonald (2012) found that the gates into the massive city had two men immured within them- one at each side. At both these sites the individuals were placed in the walls to serve as protective sacrifices to preserve the city. They act as magic barriers. Sadly there isn’t much more archaeological evidence- and that which does exist is limited. However, it is possible that this has been found in the archaeological record but hasn’t been recognized.
MacDonald, K. (2012). “The least of their inhabited villages are fortified”: the walled settlements of Segou Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 47 (3), 343-364 DOI: 10.1080/0067270X.2012.707478
Bah, T.M. 1985. Architecture militaire traditionelle et poliorce´tique dans le Soudan occidental du
XVIIe a` la ﬁn du XIXe sie`cle. Yaounde´: Editions Cle´.
Domin, H. 2012. Executed Immurement. Unusual Historicals. http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com/2012/10/executed-immurement.html
There’s the tale from the “Vita Merlini” were it is foretold that the walls of Vortigern’s tower will not stand unless a “fatherless child” is buried in the foundations. Merlin is brought forth — he was supposedly fathered by the devil.
Hadn’t heard that one yet, thanks for sharing!
In the movie The Loved One (1965), it’s one of the funeral arrangement options offer by Aimee Thanatogenos.