Booby traps, it turns out, aren’t just fictional plot twists in movies; they’re as old as history. Some 4,500 years ago, an Egyptian Pharaoh protected his final resting place in the Great Pyramid of Giza with collapsing stones. Over 2,000 years ago, a Chinese Emperor had his grave guarded with automatically firing crossbows. More recently, the Germans planned to kill Winston Churchill with a bar of exploding chocolate; fortunately, that plot was foiled. These booby traps from history may sounds like something from an adventure movie, but they were 100% real.
1. Cursed tombs with real dangers
It was in 1994 that a Mexican archaeologist called Fanny López Jiménez made an extraordinary discovery at Palenque in Mexico. Palenque was the site of the magnificent Mayan city of Lakamha', which thrived from around 600 to 900 A.D. What Jiménez came across was a tomb hidden deep in a temple, a grave that belonged to a long-dead Mayan noblewoman.
This aristocratic Mayan, identified as Lady Tz'akbu Ajaw, has come to be known as the Red Queen. The Red Queen was the wife of the 7th-century ruler K'inich Janaab Pakal I, known as a great patron of the arts. As the website of New York’s Metropolitan Museum points out, Palenque is known as “one of the most innovative and beautiful of all Maya sites.”
Laced with poison
What’s more, the Red Queen’s tomb is extraordinarily full of wealth and riches for a female Maya ruler. Tz'akbu was laid to rest wearing elaborate jewelry, including a headband of apple-green jade, a greenstone-and-shell headdress, and a malachite mask with obsidian eyes. But her tomb also had a much more dangerous addition.
Tz'akbu has become known as the Red Queen because her limestone sarcophagus and her remains were covered in a layer of cinnabar, a red pigment. Cinnabar has a high mercury content and is extremely toxic. Whether the cinnabar was added for purely decorative reasons or more sinister motives, the result is the same. Anyone touching the Red Queen’s tomb is at risk of being poisoned.
2. Trapped inside — forever
The tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III lies at perhaps the most famous of the ancient world’s archaeological sites, Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Amenhotep ruled his kingdom for nearly four decades some 3,400 years ago. French engineers attached to Napoleon’s invading army discovered his tomb in the late 1790s; it was fully excavated by the famed British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1915.
Amenhotep was just 12 years old when he succeeded to the Egyptian throne upon the death of his father Tuthmosis IV. His mother, Mutemwia, reigned on his behalf as regent until he came of age. He ruled over a vast empire that extended from the Euphrates River in modern Iraq to Sudan to the south of Egypt.
A labyrinth of passages with fake walls and floors
Amenhotep was a great builder, and his “sprawling palace at Malkata lay close to his funerary temple, the largest ever built,” according to the BBC. A network of canals linked the palace and tomb to the River Nile. Fascinatingly, his monumental mausoleum included a variety of booby traps to foil any would-be looters attracted by the treasure buried with the Pharaoh.
A bewildering labyrinth of passages and rooms eventually opened into a rather plain burial chamber. But it held a secret: a false wall concealed a secret passage that led to the true heart of the tomb. And if anyone detected this fake barrier and broke through, there was a surprise waiting for them in the passage: a false floor covering a 20-foot-deep pit. If an intruder had tumbled into it, they would have been trapped, perhaps permanently.