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Lucas was clearly drawing on the earlier era of movie serials for the Indiana Jones movies, in particular, the mechanical wood and stone traps in all of the movies. But these things do not generally come from nowhere...there' usually SOME real-world basis for a legend in the first place.

So my question is this: is there anything that existed in real archaeology where chambers were trapped in this elaborate way? Bonus points for anything actually in South America.

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The short answer is no, ancient machines used to guard tombs and temples like those in Indiana Jones have not been found.

The slightly longer answer (taken in part from this page on The Straight Dope) is that even if such traps did exist, the accumulation of centuries of neglect would not only rot away ropes, but they would also be so filled with dirt and dust and dead snakes that they wouldn't work even if everything was made out of long lasting stainless steel.

However, it's worth pointing out that, at least in ancient Greece, they had the technology to make these sorts of traps. Among the ancient Greek technology were automatic doors, vending machines, and various water powered pumps. The Greeks also have some understanding of machinery, and gears, and feasibly could have created some of these traps. Most of these devices were invented by Hero of Alexandria. However, the traps would have broken down by the 1930s-1940s when Indiana Jones takes place (and the Greeks didn't seem quite so interested in protecting tombs as the Egyptians).

  • A surprisingly relevant Straight Dope article...thanks. – Chris B. Behrens Dec 16 '11 at 23:20
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    Extremely relevant article and it traces back the very same concept of traps in tombs to Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Cities of Cibola by Carl Barks – ZJR Dec 17 '11 at 2:09
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    What if the traps weren't neglected? The Hovitos tribe seemed to recognize/revere the golden statue held up by Belloq - maybe that's because they had been given the holy task of guarding it for centuries, including keeping the automated security systems operable. – John C Dec 17 '11 at 14:05
  • Also..."ancient" is a relative term. Clearly, if we're talking pyramids, and the Middle East, most of the archaeology is pre-A.D. But not so with the Americas...there's plenty of good archaeology to be done from the past thousand years. We're still talking HUNDREDS of years, but maybe that's a different kettle of fish. – Chris B. Behrens Dec 19 '11 at 16:36
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No, most traps like the ones in the movies would break down and become useless after many years.

Tombs in Egypt would often have large stone doors designed to drop in place and block passages, but these weren't just left dangling to fall on intruders. They were dropped once bodies and belongings were interred in the tomb, attempting to seal the passages forever. They obviously didn't work that well.

Emperor Qin's tomb in China is still sealed, and is fabled to have crossbows at-the-ready and rivers of mercury. The bows, if present, wouldn't likely work, as they would have either broken down over the years or have no elasticity left in the bowstring due to being held in the ready position for so long. There is evidence that there is mercury in there though, since "probes revealed abnormally high quantities of mercury, some 100 times the naturally occurring rate." I guess this could be considered a biohazardous "trap", although the presence of the mercury was more likely for decoration than defense.

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    Unless it's an antigravity engine! – luser droog Dec 16 '11 at 23:00
  • As I recall the "rivers of mercury" are actual rivers on a map of china, so not a trap, alas. – Alan Feb 1 '13 at 13:39
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No, there are no known examples of ancient temples or ruins with intact traps, especially ones like in the movies.

The traps in the movies were all powered by very simple technologies - rope tension and gravity, typically. Such things would fall apart within a matter of years if exposed to the typical equatorial environments.

The workings of such traps, typically complex pulley systems, would literally fall apart as ropes rotted, and would have been massive (and dangerous) construction projects to start with.

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