Dear Straight Dope: While watching Raiders of the Lost Ark the other day, I began to wonder if archaeologists have ever really come across ancient sites that were full of booby-traps, or if this sort of thing is merely the fantasy of Hollywood screenwriters. I know that some ancient tombs, such as that of King Tut, were supposedly cursed, but just writing, “This place is cursed! Booga-booga!” on the wall doesn’t seem nearly as effective to me as a good two-ton rolling boulder or poison darts that shoot out of the wall if you step in the wrong place. Please set me straight. — Charles Dear Straight Dope: Ancient, booby-trapped tombs and temples seem to be a staple of action-adventure movies. You know, crushing ceilings, poisoned darts firing from the walls, falling boulders, and that sort of thing. But has anyone ever found evidence of such an ancient mechanism? I’ve read that Emperor Qin’s tomb in China is supposed to be protected by hair-trigger crossbows, but the chamber hasn’t been excavated yet. What are the chances that any device would still work after two millennia? Scott Miller, Santa Maria, CA
SDStaff dropzone replies:
None, Scott, but as you noted, Qin’s tomb has not yet been fully excavated. The crossbows might even be there but under the best possible conditions the bows and bowstrings have taken a set at full draw and will not move when released. I’m placing slightly more credence in the stories of rivers and lakes of liquid mercury shimmering around Qin’s sarcophagus. Tests of soil samples from his mound have shown there to be 70 to 1500 PPB of mercury, a range from “not much” to “a fair amount.” It doesn’t sound like tons of mercury have leached into the soil but the site does seem to be contaminated. I’ll let some other saps breathe mercury-filled dust halfway around the world as they try to prove me wrong. Instead, allow me to set the scene for our readers as I answer Charles’s question.
The tension builds as Indiana Jones steps carefully across the temple floor. Standing at the pedestal he eyes the golden idol carefully and fills a bag with just the right amount of sand to balance the idol when he takes it. Oh no! His mental calculation was not quite right and as the platform sinks it sets in motion a mechanism that closes the heavy stone doors. As Jones and his guide attempt the escape the ancient temple they trigger more booby traps and the air fills with poison arrows. Finally, Jones, his guide impaled and his hat nearly lost, triggers the final trap, an enormous stone ball that chases him through the temple’s Habitrail of passages.
Whew! Exciting stuff and a great movie scene but could anything like that happen in real life? Is archaeology a grand adventure where danger lurks at every turn? Did the ancients set traps for those who defiled their graves and sacred places?
It’s rare that an archaeologist can walk into a newly-discovered ancient building and start nosing around. Very rare. OK, it never happens. You see, debris starts accumulating in a building long before it’s done being built. It was only through the constant efforts of the custodial staff that the priests of Indy’s temple weren’t kicking their way through mounds of dirt, dried leaves, and soda cans on their way to human sacrifices a thousand years ago. When the janitors quit things went to pot quickly — today the typical Mesoamerican temple lies buried under the accumulated junk of centuries. Nobody will be running down those halls until somebody, preferably a volunteer or student working for free who still thinks archaeology is romantic, has shoveled out all that dirt. With a soup spoon. And sifted it for busted crockery and chicken bones.
That dirt isn’t just in your clothes, hair, shoes, and fingernails; it’s also in any machines the ancients hoped would kill you. Here’s this week’s home experiment: Bury your car at the beach. Leave it there a month, then dig it up and try to start it. Didn’t work, did it? Neither would the ancients’ machines.
If there were any, I mean. That’s the thing, you see. The main reason archaeologists have nothing to fear from booby traps isn’t that the machines have been buried a couple millennia. It’s that the ancients just didn’t have cool machines like automatic door closers or trip-wired blowguns or enormous ball returns. Archaeologists know this not only because they have never found the ball returns but also because the ancients didn’t brag about them. If Pharaoh Amunhotep XXIII had something like that, or thought of it, or had somebody on the Cool Weapons staff who thought of it, there would be stellae (upright inscribed stones) trumpeting his total coolness and showing giant bowling balls knocking down Midianites like squishy duckpins.
But don’t take my word for it. I asked Winifred Creamer at Northern Illinois University, an authority on Central American archaeology, if she had ever heard of anything like the Indiana Jones scenario. She said no, but suggested writers might have gotten the idea from Egyptian tombs in which enormous stone blocks were dropped behind the workers as they closed the tombs, “blocking access forever after to the entry way.” She added, “It is ironic that most Egyptian tombs were broken into after they were closed in such drastic ways, and in ancient times.” Sometimes, I might add, by the very workers who built them and the priests left to guard them. It’s easier to navigate a maze if you designed it, and while a granite slab is hard to cut through, these fellows knew the native limestone on either side was softer. Many an archaeologist finding a new tomb has been disappointed to find that ancient grave robbers had beaten her to it, absconding with the good stuff long before she was born.
Ever helpful, Dr. Creamer suggested I contact Emily Teeter, the curator of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. If anybody has seen reliefs showing squashed Midianites it would be her. “I am really sorry to report that if curses are out, then there is really nothing devious. Hollywood has turned standard architectural features like sliding portcullis blocks, shafts, and sand filled chambers into objects of horror. Sorry that the Egyptians were not more evil.” Still, she gets cookies because she was so nice and helpful and I’m looking for an excuse to drop by her museum.
I saw a report on a dig in Egypt where some of the diggers were made ill by a thick layer of hematite on the floor of a tomb and thought I had finally found my quarry. I’m not shy when it comes to e-mailing and, as I had already bothered some of the top people in the United States about this, I thought I would have similar success asking Zahi Hawass, star of National Geographic and Fox specials and the man who supervised this dig, if he thought the iron ore had been placed there on purpose.
No response when I dropped Cecil’s name and only a “we’ll get back to you” form letter when I didn’t. Still, dumping a few inches of rust on the floor is an odd way to booby trap a tomb. Or is it truly diabolical in its complexity? Was this scheme suggested by the aliens who taught the Egyptians pyramid building, beer brewing, and double-entry bookkeeping? Was the lack of response from Dr. Hawass to prevent me from revealing the aliens’ role or instead a sordid ruse to get me to buy his book, which has no more about the incident than his website? We may never know. No cookies for Dr. Hawass, and he looks like a man who likes his cookies.
Back to Dr. Creamer, who proceeded to drop a bombshell: “Costa Rica definitely has those big stone balls,” she said. My mind racing like Indy through the halls of the temple, I rushed to find out more. Wow! The one on John Hoopes’ opening page (Editor’s note: Original page defunct, try this instead.) is big enough to turn Harrison Ford into a grease spot — I made a mental note to send Dr. Creamer a double batch of cookies with extra chocolate chips. But were the balls used to protect temples? “Nobody knows for sure” what they were for, she told me. “The balls had ceased to be made by the time of the first Spanish explorers, and remained completely forgotten until they were rediscovered in the 1940s. Many of the balls were found to be in alignments, consisting of straight and curved lines, as well as triangles and parallelograms. One group of four balls was found to be arranged in a line oriented to magnetic north. This has led to speculation that they may have been arranged by people familiar with the use of magnetic compasses, or astronomical alignments.”
They were arranged in patterns and then just sat there? What fun is that? Since respectable archaeology was getting me nowhere, I turned to the nuts. Alas, all I found was the usual claptrap: “It’s hardly believable that they could make lots of such balls without special instruments,” “Is it possible that some other civilization unknown to science lived on the territory of Costa Rica?” and “more unbelievable facts,” but nothing about squashing intruders. The balls don’t even roll around on their own like the rocks on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. They just sit there, “grouped in forms resembling celestial constellations” and emitting “anomalous fields” that might cure cancer. Boring!
So no booby traps in real life. Just a scene from a movie and not an original one at that, having been “inspired” by Carl Barks’ “Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Cities of Cibola.” A comic book. About ducks. The truth just gets more depressing. I’m eating all the cookies myself.
Hawass, Zahi, Curse of the Pharaohs — My Adventures with Mummies, National Geographic Society, 2004
SDStaff dropzone, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.