Ancient Trap Ideas to Protect Your Tomb or Catch Your Lunch
Take any good work of fiction with ancient ruins and the odds are it is booby trapped; whether its Dr. Jones running from a large boulder, Lara Croft leaping over a collapsing bridge floor or Fred in Scooby Doo thwarting the museum security guard. But is any of this real? Did ancient rulers build elaborate traps to protect their tombs? Were historic kings really the designers and builders of death devices? The answer, as bizarre as it might sound, is ‘yes’.
Booby trap firing devices, c. 1941: Press, pull and release switches; mass-produced components intended for the construction of booby traps. ( Public Domain )
Ancient Booby Traps to Protect The Dead
A booby trap is a device intended to kill or harm a person or animal and, as the word ‘trap’ implies, they have generally followed some kind of bait. Booby traps should not be confused with mantraps, which, rather than killing, are designed to catch people. Lethal booby traps are often used in guerrilla warfare and by criminal gangs protecting illicit materials, while other booby traps may merely cause discomfort or embarrassment.
In Ancient Egypt, Amenhotep III was the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and he ruled over Egypt from 1386 to 1349 BC. His tomb apparently ended at a plainly adorned room with a collection of various treasures, but it was equipped with a false wall hiding a secret passage which led to the heart of the tomb. Defending the false wall, a false floor concealed a 6 meter (20 foot) deep deadly pit trap which was maintained by people living nearby; “paid in perpetuity” to replace the false floor as it was activated by looters.
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A typical false door to an Egyptian tomb - the deceased is shown above the central niche in front of a table of offerings, and inscriptions listing offerings for the deceased are carved along the side panels. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In Mexico, the Red Queen of Palenque was a ruler of the sanguine Maya around 650 AD. The altars in two vast pyramidal temples were protected by false floors and death pits, but these were just teasers - for inside the leader’s sarcophagi her bones - and all of the pearl and jade treasures - had been painted red with cinnabar, a deadly neurotoxin.
Jade mask of the Red Queen of Palenque from the tomb found in Temple XIII. (Wolfgang Sauber/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Arguably the most elaborate ancient tomb trap was built by Qin Shi Huang , the first emperor to unify China (“Qin” is where the word China comes from). His famous 8,000 strong Terracotta Army symbolically protected Qin, but the mausoleum itself has not been excavated by archaeologists for fear of unforeseen traps. The Qin Emperor is known to have been buried within a two square kilometer (0.77 sq. mile) map of China including liquid mercury lakes and rivers. And archaeologists have found that soil samples near the tomb hold inordinate amounts of mercury; growing stronger as you approach the site of his grave.
Ancient Animal Trapping Around the World
Trapping people was a well-developed art, but trapping animals brings with it an entirely new skill, which was first developed by humans to supplement their ancient plant based diets. Early humans devised stone, bone, and rope devices to remotely catch pray. And in some areas, over time, the use of traps for catching food was expanded upon for pest control, wildlife management, sport hunting, and the fur trade.
Today, to limit the damage caused to household food supplies and property, trapping is most often used for pest control. Among America’s most trapped animals are: beaver, coyote, raccoon, cougar, opossum, bobcat, fox, squirrel, rat, mouse, and mole. The most commonly used domestic traps are spring activated, but invertebrates such as spiders and cockroaches are captured by glue traps. What one seldom considers when catching vermin is that the tools used all have very, very ancient origins.
Although all ancient peoples must have trapped to some extent or another, the earliest written evidence is a passage written by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who describes ancient Chinese trapping methods developed during the 4th century BC, which reads "The sleek-furred fox and the elegantly spotted leopard can't seem to escape the disaster of nets and traps.” Earlier evidence of traps than the Chinese written record are associated with the Cucuteni Trypillian culture of Romania and Ukraine (ca. 5500-2750 BC) who used a range of clever traps to capture their prey.
Cucuteni Trypillian culture archeological finds discovered in Moldova, circa 3650 BC. ( Public Domain )
In North America, Native Americans trapped furry animals with snares, dead falls, and pits. Trapping was a way of life in the early days of North American settlements, leading to the establishment of organizations like the Canadian fur brigade. The massive trading companies of Europe, backed by monarchies, raced to establish trading posts alongside the natives of North America, which doubled as forts and also helped to legitimize territorial claims. Trappers crossed the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains in search of fur and they traded with Native Americans - from whom they learned hunting and trapping skills.
Jim Bridger (1804-1881) was a most famous mountain man who lived in the wilderness, trapping as a way of living. Photograph, Denver Public Library. ( Public Domain )
In the early days of colonization, furs were traded between the Native Americans and the Dutch, French, and English and much trading occurred along the Hudson River in the early 1600s. The Hudson's Bay Company, for example, traded furs, blankets, rifles, pistols, knives, and food with trappers and Native Americans.
The first mention of steel jaw-traps comes from Leonard Mascall's 16th century book on animal trapping. Beaver was one of the main hunted animals at that time. As this animal’s fur became popular in the early 19th century, the beaver became scarce in many regions due to over-harvesting and many trappers turned to hunting buffalo and leading wagon trains heading out west.
North American beaver (Castor canadensis). (Steve/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Let’s now have a look at the most often used ancient trap types which still find applications today.
Types of Ancient Traps
Leghold traps were invented in the 1600s as mantrap snares to keep poachers out of European estates. In the early 1700s, blacksmiths began making smaller iron versions of these devices for trappers. By the 1800s, companies began to mass produce steel leghold traps.
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Deadfall traps are heavy rocks or logs held up with branches with one of them serving as a trigger. When an animal so much as brushes against the baited trigger, the rock or log falls and crushes it.
A small paiute-style deadfall trap, made with dogbane cordage. (Yourcelf/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Snares are anchored cord or wire nooses used to trap wild animals such as squirrels and rabbits. They are widely used by subsistence and commercial hunters for bushmeat consumption and for trade in rural Cambodia and African forest regions.
Trapping pits and cage traps are deep pits dug into the ground in order to trap animals. Today, these are usually employed for catching animals without harming them. Foothold traps are holes dug in the ground with attractants and a trap positioned at its front for catching coyotes, fox, or bobcats. The so called ‘cubby set’ simulates a den in which a small animal might live, and the lure or bait is placed in the back of the cubby.
Pit for hunting wolves in a wood near Hohenwart, Bavaria, Germany. (Georg Waßmuth/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Spikes embedded in the main door of Shaniwarwada was meant to deter the use of elephants by the enemy to ram the gates. ( CC by SA 2.0 )
By Ashley Cowie
Osirisnet (2005-2018) ‘Amenhotep III – KV 22.’ Osirisnet: Tombs of Ancient Egypt. Available at: www.osirisnet.net/tombes/pharaons/amenhotep3/e_amenhotep3_01.htm
Zhuangzi, and Burton Watson. (1968) The Complete Works of Zhuang Zi. New York: Columbia University Press, (ISBN 0-231-03147-5), pp. 20-21.
Stefan Cucoș (1999) ‘Faza Cucuteni B în zona subcarpatică a Moldovei Muzeul de Istorie Piatra Neamț.’ Memoria Antiqvitatis XXII. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/36234835/%C8%98TEFAN_CUCO%C8%98_-_FAZA_CUCUTENI_B_%C3%8EN_ZONA_SUBCARPATIC%C4%82_A_MOLDOVEI