Carved messages from the castle dungeon

Dungeon graffiti

This graffiti shows a padlock with a socket wrench. It was carved in the late Middle Ages by a prisoner into the inner wall of the dungeon of the Questenburg in the southern Harz. © Felix Biermann/State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt

In the Middle Ages, dungeons and dungeons were part of the basic equipment of most castles - including Questenberg Castle in the southern Harz. Numerous scratched drawings on the inner wall of the tower cellar prove that people were actually once imprisoned in the basement of their keep. According to recent research, these graffiti from the late Middle Ages include everyday objects and tools of the time as well as Christian and magical symbols.

In the Middle Ages and early modern times, castles not only served as displays of power and strategically placed defenses. The nobles living in them enforce their rights and claims in their territory by force of arms. The incarceration of enemies, but also of unruly subjects, was therefore more the rule than the exception. Even kidnapping people for ransom was a common source of income in the late Middle Ages. It's no wonder that dungeons and dungeons were part of the basic equipment in most castles.

Keep ruins
View of the keep stump of Questenberg Castle that still stands today from the southeast. © Felix Biermann/State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt

A medieval castle and its remains

One of these castles was Questenberg Castle near Sangerhausen in the southern Harz. This hilltop castle was probably built in the middle of the 13th century by the Counts of Beichlingen-Rothenburg on the summit of a 280 meter high hill above the village of Questenberg. It once consisted of an elongated core castle with a keep and a few outbuildings made of limestone, as well as a walled outer bailey located below the main castle. In front of the fortification complex was a mountain terrace on which further outbuildings in the form of half-timbered buildings once stood. All that remains of this building, which was used for centuries, are the ruins of the main castle and the stump of the keep.

This 8.80 meter wide, round tower once served to defend and fortify the castle on the northwest side. The castle's dungeon was once located in the basement of this tower, as Felix Biermann from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology of Saxony-Anhalt explains: "The fact that these uncomfortable places were actually used for such a purpose in the Middle Ages and early modern times is proven by contemporary written documents, more rarely “also visual evidence,” says the historian. Names such as lazy storm, hunger storm or thief storm also refer to this purpose. However, proving that these tower basements actually served as castle dungeons is not always easy - and in many cases controversial.

Prisoner graffiti in the Bergfried cellar

In the Questenburg, however, there is clear evidence of the use of the keep cellar as a dungeon: “The rare material evidence of the corresponding use of the particularly draconian-appearing tower dungeons includes carvings on the walls of these rooms, which can be attributed to people locked there,” explains the archaeologist. And exactly such scratched graffiti was found in the basement of the castle tower. 60 different incised images are carved into the soft limestone blocks of the inner tower wall. “The motifs were carved very heavily, perhaps with a nail, a knife, a chisel-like device or even just a sharp stone,” reports Biermann.

“There can hardly be any doubt that the pictures were created in the late Middle Ages or the earliest modern period,” reports Biermann. He dates its creation to the 15th or early 16th century. This is supported by the condition of the graffiti, but also its content. The carved images show various everyday objects, tools and agricultural equipment that were in use at the time - for example hoes and plows, horse curry combs, hammers and anvils as well as a padlock and key. The carved motifs also include geometric shapes and Christian, heraldic and magical symbols such as crosses, coats of arms and some pentagrams. “These symbols are linked to a variety of protective and defensive spells and certainly reflect the hopes and fears of the people imprisoned here,” writes the researcher.

The style of the graffiti also suggests that the majority of them were made by just one person; a few were probably made by a second and third prisoner, as Biermann reports. It is also striking that all of the incised images only start 50 centimeters above the current base of the tower; these graffiti are missing further down. “Since not a single scratch was made deeper, the lower parts were probably covered by backfilling at the time - here one can think of rubble, leveling necessary for construction purposes or rubbish such as feces, food remains, straw and corresponding decay products,” writes the archaeologist.

Source: State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt - State Museum of Prehistory; Specialist article: Annual journal for Central German prehistory, doi: 10.11588/jsmv.2023.1.100718

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