Wednesday, 15 March 2023

The Sedentary Catacombs

When we say that the funerary customs of Assar-Ytite were egalitarian, it is important to clarify what we mean. Foreigners, even long resident respected merchants and publicly-feted ambassadors who died in that city would be required to pay for their own funerals and monuments in the cramped strip of ground set aside for that purpose. Likewise, the unransomed war captives who raised the great walls of the city and quarried the four reservoirs in the Houndstooth Hills - and ended their days in slit trenches. The cadaver of the executed criminal was thrown into a dedicated section of the city's midden, as was the criminal who died in the course of corporal punishment: the gods had clearly decided that the justice of men was insufficient for them. 

However, every burgher of the city, every cultivator, every weaver, every child-rearer, every coppersmith, every scribe, every priest and oracle, every citizen-soldier and captain of the host - every hereditary magistrate and anointed clansman was buried in the same place. 

If, that is, they could be. There were separate rites for the shipwrecked, the unreturned traveller, the devoured, the unrecovered war dead, the sorcerously befouled. These ceremonies were similar in form to those across the whole South-West: centred on the temple, formed of tearful addresses to the psychopomps and gods of the underworld, accompanied by sacrifices, dances and dirges. One famous chronicler of the last century has asserted that these are of a foreign origin - developed only with the growth of trade in the region. However, it is unlikely that so highly specific and focused a set of customs would be devoid of practices for when citizens died away from Assar-Ytite, even if they did come to be influenced by neighbouring beliefs. 

The dead of Assar-Ytite were buried in catacombs of the city: long tunnels dug into the rock, running under the tiled houses and arcaded plazas into the wilderness. Each corpse was dressed and placed on a throne - throne after throne stretching on either side of the long corridors.

After its customs, the city provided the burial place. The family (or the coffers of the season's magistrate) provided the throne. Naturally, thrones differed. Brick thrones were the norm for the poorest. Glazed tiles patterned the visible sections of the middle ranks. Carved stone was for those who could afford it. Panels of beaten metal were a common ornament on thrones of any rank, and almost every throne will bear a clay tablet with the name and rank of the dead. Further details of the deceased's life and prayers to the gods of the afterlife were seen only one the thrones of the upper ranks (or professional scribes). 

Curiously, plaster and paint - despite being commonly found in the temple precincts and clan quarters of Assar-Ytite - were not employed in the catacombs. 

The thrones of dead infants are the same size as those of adults. All but the smallest children would be placed sitting just as an adult, perhaps set in place by cloth-wrapped wooden blocks. The greater space accorded this offers on the body of the throne is typically given to a greater number of prayer tablets for the departed. 

Some thrones of unusual form have been seen in the catacombs: the anchorite oracle Yezerit was buried in an enclosed booth of common brick, with a ornamental hatch. Archoptala, the greatest astrologer of her century, who led the fifth calendrical revisions, was buried on a throne with a baldachin studded with quartz pins showing the constellations. The Adamant Twenty who died at Esaul Pass were buried together on a replica barracks bench, with their arms on the wall behind them and clutching the bowl for the evening rations in their hands. At one end of the bench was set the tall issue jug for barleywine.

The dead within the catacombs tend to be dressed as they were in life. There were exceptions: wounds are very deliberately covered by folds of cloth or daubs of pale clay. Fallen soldiers tend to be dressed not in real armour,  but carefully painted and fitted clay replica armour: exceptions are only found among the heroic or very wealthy dead. The manufacture of mock-armour seems to have been a good trade in Assar-Ytite. 

Unlike the reservoirs, the catacombs were dug out only by the labour of citizens. Tunnels ran far ahead of the number of thrones - ensuring that the work of the diggers did not disturb the dead - or allowing, perhaps, for the arrival of many new residents at once. 

Unsurprisingly, it was the young and spry who dug the tunnels, carried away the rubble and paved the floors with the slight slope and necessary drainage tunnel. It was not necessary for a citizen over their majority to serve the Year Given to the Dead in one chunk; indeed, it was considered positively outrĂ© to do so. There is even a case mentioned in surviving records of a magistrate issuing declarations of censure against a band of young men of the same age who worked in the tunnels all at the same time, chattering and chanting work-songs as if they were working at any common task. 

The Year Given to the Dead also allowed for recruitment to the societies of guardians, surveyors and guides of the tunnels. Different extended clan groups would, at a set phase of the moon, be allowed access to the catacombs to say prayers for the recently departed or maintain the tombs of famed ancestors. Entrances were flanked by images of the weeping serpent-goat Wahv, but that appears to have been the only formal signage within the tunnels. 

In the life of the city, there is no evidence of the catacombs being used as a shelter, or a sewer, or a smuggling route. The extramural refuse dumps beyond the Bitumen Yards show many centuries of eager use and a paved road leading to them, attesting to a robust waste removal service. 

There are no written accounts of the theft of grave goods, and, equally, there are no written accounts of the dead protecting their treasures, nor of dedicated sentries. 

Whether this means that such thefts did not occur, or that someone was very good at protecting the catacombs is, at present, unclear. 


"What if Conan skeleton but everyone?"



  1. That damn constellar ornament ... absolutely flawless.

    Couldn't but get the vastest idea of so many rows, so many thrones.

    Some absolutely choice sentences, as usual. "centred on the temple, formed of tearful addresses to the psychopomps and gods of the underworld, accompanied by sacrifices, dances and dirges"; "sorcerously befouled".

    Still haven't sat down with my download. Still haven't been near a printer. Still keeping up, in my slogging way.

    1. The throne of Archoptala came to me in the writing - glad I included it!

  2. The weird fascination in 19th century England with the idea that someone could eccentrically be buried sitting or standing ... probably on the model of Jeremy Bentham but inspiring a number of urban legends about conspicuous monuments, and a detail of the M. R. James story The Tractate Middoth.

    1. I'd heard of Bentham, of course, but didn't know there were any copycats. Interesting.

      I wonder how many Horror/Fantasy with Horror-like Elements novels have seated skeletons/corpses. If the norm is a corpse lying down in a grave, crypt, barrow, sarcophagus or pyre then a corpse seated is at the least a marker of 'something is different' - which may prove to be unsettling, or wrong. Iterate a few times until mere unquiet spirits become undead kings and the like - the Liche-Tyrant will not lie down, because he's going to get up at any moment!