There is nothing quite like a good treasure hunting story. And as anybody who loves adventure fiction knows, if a hero goes looking for treasure in ancient ruins they’re bound to have to avoid at least one booby trap. From Indiana Jones having to run out of a temple to avoid getting squashed by a boulder, to Lara Croft leaping off a collapsing floor just in time there are many examples – and that’s just films. In books and games characters like Dirk Pitt and Nathan Drake have survived dozens of deadly traps between them.
However, is it really possible that booby traps were set to guard ancient tombs? The surprising answer is there are a few examples of booby traps guarding the way to treasures in locations like temples and tombs. So grab your whip and fedora and join me as I examine four ancient sites guarded by fiendish booby traps.
Tomb of Amenhotep The Magnificent
We’ll start our search in the most famous country for exploring ancient tombs: Egypt. There are examples of curses the world over, but none is more famous than the Ancient Egyptians mummy’s curse, which is inscribed on doorways and statues throughout Egypt. The curses warn would be grave robbers of death by a variety of means if they have the audacity to violate a tomb. But the Pharaohs didn’t rely on supernatural protection alone, they also arranged for more practical means of defence.
The tomb of Amenhotep III (also called the magnificent) appeared to end in a richly adorned room with a moderate amount of treasure that was worth stealing. In reality, the false wall on the back hid a passage leading to the rest of the tomb. But before any treasure seekers could even get to the false wall, they had to deal with a much more dangerous trap: a false concealing a deadly pit trap. A 6 meter drop down a featureless shaft that was filled with spikes would have been a death sentence for all put the luckiest of people (so Nathan Drake would have been fine). People living nearby were paid to replace the false floors as they were activated.
Collapsing temple of Baphuon at Angkor Tom
Thousands of miles away from Egypt in the jungles of Cambodia lie the next booby trapped ruins, the temple of Baphuon. The remains of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor contain hundreds of fantastic buildings against a dramatic backdrop of verdant jungle, and the temple of Baphuon is one of the most interesting of them.
One of the greatest tropes in all of fiction is the temple that, when desecrated, dramatically collapses with the heroes rushing to escape. No temple from real life exemplifies this trope more than the enormous Baphuon, which was originally 50 metres tall and still stands 34 metres today. Originally dedicated to Shiva when it was built in the 11th century, the 16m bronze and stone altar at the top was disassembled and turned into a statue of the reclining Buddha on the west side of the second story. But the stones removed were not as ornamental as they seemed: they held back a massive wall of sand which flooded out, destroying the reclining Buddha and the entire western side of the pyramid. That is certainly one way to defend your temple from beyond the grave.
It wasn’t until 400 years later in 1960 when it was reassembled, and it wasn’t opened to the public until 2011. It’s got the reclining Buddha statue, only thankfully now the entire thing is reinforced with metal throughout.
The Red Queen Of Palenque
In another steamy, jungle-clad land filled with monumental buildings, but half a millennia earlier, one of the most dramatic booby traps of all time was being set in the tomb of the Red Queen of Palenque. Red, being the colour of blood, was of paramount importance to the murderous Maya – it coloured nearly all of their buildings, much of their clothing, and in the case of the Red Queen and Lord Pacal, their bones. These two Maya nobles were entombed in the base of two separate pyramid temples in stunning Palenque. The stairway from the altar to their death chambers were filled in with rocks and then sealed with another false floor, and when discovered it took years to unearth. But that wasn’t the trap. The trap was what was waiting inside their sarcophagi. Their bones had been painted red with cinnabar – a deadly neurotoxin made from ground mercury ore. The deadly paste covered not just their bones, but also all of the jade, pearls, and other treasures in there with them. In 1994 Arnoldo Cruz and his team of archaeologists had to be very careful to avoid poisoning themselves when they opened the sarcophagus, and discovered the cunningly contaminated remains.
That’s certainly one way to try and protect your remains and treasure from beyond the grave.
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
By far the greatest booby trapped tomb has got to be that of Qin Shi Huang. Fitting, given that the legendary Emperor was the first man to unify all of China (Qin is where we get China). He is without doubt one of the most important figures in history, and used the vast resources at his disposal to construct what is arguably the world’s most spectacular, and certainly its most well guarded, tomb.
Everyone is familiar with the enormous scale of the majestically carved Terracotta Army. The army contains over 8,000 full sized soldiers, along with hundreds of horses and chariots. In effect it’s an exact stone replica of the Emperors real army designed to protect him in the afterlife (imagine the size of his ego). Yet this merely covers one section of the necropolis surrounding his mausoleum. The mausoleum itself has not been excavated, primarily for fear of the traps. The first one, the one that was most intended specifically as a deterrent to thieves was automatic crossbows. Of course, archaeologists say that the wood and sinew of crossbows would have long since deteriorated. However, some suggest they may have been made from flexible metal, and that if they’re only pulled into position when they’re triggered, the mechanism just might have survived.
Now we get to the best part. If any resourceful tomb raiders had made it past the crossbows they would have been in for a surprise. The Qin Emperor was said to have been buried with a two square kilometre map of China, complete with liquid mercury rivers and lakes. Despite the tomb not having been opened yet (largely for fear of this last booby trap) archaeologists are confident that this rumour is true due to soil samples from near the tomb being full of massive amounts of mercury, and the concentration only grows stronger as you approach his grave. I don’t know about you but I think I’ll leave this tomb to the experts, or at least to Rick O’Connell.
So there we have it. Four examples of real life ancient booby trapped tombs and temples. They’re nowhere near as numerous as fiction would have us believe, but raiding tombs can still be a risky business.
Be careful next time you’re on the hunt for priceless artefacts everyone.