...and they did it all with rocks and mud...
December 21, 2009 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Is there a real-world precedent for the enormous temples full of elaborate premodern machinery that we see so often in adventure movies and video games?

The closest thing I could find on TV Tropes to describe the cliché was the Indiana-Jones-inspired Temple of Doom. It's been on my mind lately because of my most recent addiction, Uncharted 2, which shares many themes with Dr. Jones, and also with Tomb Raider. The old buildings I'm talking about aren't always temples. They're usually in ruins, but also, not always.

The machines inside run on weights and counterweights, or light bounced from mirror to mirror, or a waterway redirected to flow into a water wheel of some kind. There's often an elaborate network of gears driving the whole thing, hidden behind the wall. There are a million variations, all terribly clever and unbelievable. Usually they're presented as puzzles for adventurers to solve to gain access deeper into the building, presumably to where untold fortunes await. Often, failure will kill the adventurer by lowering the ceiling (with spikes!) or removing the floor or shooting darts or some other gruesome method.

Was this idea created in the 20th century, or do these sorts of things actually exist anywhere in the world? What's more, have any archeologists (or, I guess, treasure hunters) been killed by still-functioning death traps?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Scholars at the Museum in Alexandria in the Hellenistic period worked on elaborate mechanisms like this. One guy named Hero is credited with inventing an early steam engine. There's not really any evidence that these things were anything but hypothetical, though (except for the famous Antikythera Mechanism). Probably not much in the way of death traps, but cool nonetheless.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:13 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: An article on this question: Were ancient tombs really booby-trapped?

(Spoiler: No)
posted by smackfu at 8:23 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the Straight Dope's take.
posted by drezdn at 8:24 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tikal in Guatemala and Angkor Wat in Cambodia should both be on your reading list: lost jungle cities from bygone theocracies with some rather indelicate ways of treating their enemies.
posted by rongorongo at 8:27 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's the voice of Memnon..

Greek theater had special effects, some created by the aforementioned Heron. Hence the phrase Deus ex machina

There were other cheap carny tricks in temples to gull the rubes, but I'm avoiding real work right now and so will leave it either to you or to later.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:32 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a good chapter in The Rise and Fall of Alexandria... that talks about the kind of mechanical world the ancients lived in.

Some of it is conjecture (the author thinks it is not an unsafe bet that the Tower of the Winds was once home to a larger version of the antikythera mechanism or something like it) , but a lot of it is what oinopaponton is talking about.

The wine dispenser that operates with a counterweight is very similar to the Indiana Jones scene where he removes the gold statue right before the ball comes rolling down.

But no death traps that I remember reading about, unless you want to count Archimedes' winches and ship-dragging weapons. Still very, very cool.
posted by Tchad at 8:58 AM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'll speak to the second part, as I really don't have any examples of machines that are significant or large and intact upon excavation. The SD article is a good overview, especially describing the lack of great big walk-into ruins.

So, as far as I know - Near Eastern archaeologist - there are a lot more mundane horrors, versus huge constructed machinery that operates, out there in remote fieldwork areas.

Things I can think of off the top of my head that either I or my colleagues have experienced first-hand: Loose stone, unfortified excavations collapsing, ravines, smugglers/pothunters, anti-$country sentiment, any number of diseases, "have I told you the story about the insect that burrowed into my eye..." Hell, I almost got shot in Missouri, never mind what my friends in Egypt dealt with. Pre-iron-age machinery is the least of things to worry about.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:13 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember this coming up in an archeology class in college. We tried to find any documentation of traps or other scary contraptions in tombs, etc. as an idea for a paper, but we couldn't come up with anything at all solid and had to abandon the idea. This was before the internet, though, so I guess we could have missed something.

But yea, the scariest stuff when I did fieldwork was more mundane - rabid bottle hunters brandishing guns, well feature excavations that collapsed, being attacked by wild pigs, that sort of thing.
posted by gemmy at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: Well, Indiana Jones is all based on early serials, so there may be some fictional precedent there.

Certainly an earlier real-life precedent is the suppositional pirate treasure of Oak Island^. I'm of the opinion that there was something there but that most of the booby traps were in the imagination of the treasure-hunters battling wet sand below sea level.

There is, by the way, ample precedent for something Western being transposed into an alien culture as a threat. The "Chinese" rat torture -- rat under a tin on the victim's stomach, heat applied until rat eats its way out -- has only (not entirely trustworthy) documentation tracing it to Dutch Protestants torturing Catholics, for example. And the "tiger cages" that US/ARVN forces used against Vietnamese guerrillas eventually turned up in US-made Vietnam movies as being used by the Viet Cong against US POWs. The imagination is a funny thing, and racism is a powerful trope.
posted by dhartung at 10:09 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a trap, but Ancient Inventions talks about "automatic" temple doors invented by Heron, which were steam and counterweight powered. Basically, you'd light a fire on an altar, and the temple doors would swing open via a clever arrangement of unseen pipes, air, water, and counterweights.

He also invented a coin-operated holy-water dispenser.
posted by fings at 10:40 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is there a real-world precedent for the enormous temples full of elaborate premodern machinery that we see so often in adventure movies and video games?

How about The Colosseum?

"Substantial quantities of machinery also existed in the hypogeum. Elevators and pulleys raised and lowered scenery and props, as well as lifting caged animals to the surface for release. There is evidence for the existence of major hydraulic mechanisms[14] and according to ancient accounts, it was possible to flood the arena rapidly, presumably via a connection to a nearby aqueduct."
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 1:56 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you want a premodern religious structure with machinery, there's the Clairvaux abbey, which used waterpower for milling wheat, making beer, fulling cloth, tanning leather, and carrying away waste. No traps, though. The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel contains much more on the medieval era's fascination with machinery, which exceeded almost anything done in ancient times.

(The biggest unbelievability about the movie traps is their durability... machinery isn't going to stay functional for centuries. If you're really concerned to keep your goods safe, instead of booby-trapping the passage that leads to them, just have no such passage.)
posted by zompist at 5:11 PM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Not a trap as such, but I remember reading about an Egyptian tomb [don't recall which sorry] that had a false corridor blocked with massive blocks of granite. Some poor sod had chiseled all the way through in antiquity, only to discover it was a dead end.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:01 PM on December 21, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the info, everybody! It was pretty disappointing that this stuff's only fictional, but I enjoyed reading about Heron, the Colosseum, and medieval machinery. I've always had a fascination with analog computers, astrolabes, and anything that's been replaced by modern tech that used to accomplish the same thing with gears and unbelievable cleverness. There's so much beauty in a well-engineered piece of clockwork. I don't know that the kind of ingenuity still exists in the world to invent that sort of thing today without a blueprint from the past.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2009

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