From door-mounted amulets prescribed by the Hebrew Bible to labryinths and puzzle locks, from bear-filled moats to “murder holes,” gaggles of squawking geese, and “chirping” floors, here are 10 ancient home security systems used for security, peace, and protection from the outside world.
Today we worry about common house thieves and robbers. But in the past, if you lived in a castle or large home, you probably feared a full army. And frankly, when it comes to sieges, a fence won’t cut it.
Enter the moat--a circular trench, often filled with water, surrounding a castle or large home and all but guaranteeing that you’d need some serious swimming skills for a successful B&E. Moats can be dated back to ancient Egypt, though naturally it was the Middle Ages that gave us the ominous, water-filled moats that we picture today.
The myth of moats filled with poisonous snakes or alligators seems to be just that--a myth. However, there is evidence that one dry moat, surrounding the Krumlov Castle in what’s now the Czech Republic, was populated by something far more imposing--bears.
2. Murder Holes
Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? The murder hole, also known as a meurtrière, dates back to the Middle Ages, and is about as sophisticated as its name suggests.
Murder holes were typically openings in a ceiling, barbician, or other large passageway that
gave defenders overhead access to intruders. What did they do with these openings? Throw things, obviously. Lest you think it was all crude barbarism, they did allow themselves some measure of creativity, namely in what they decided to throw. Some took the simple path and dropped boulders on intruders, while others opted to greet their unwelcome guests with scalding water, molten lead, boiling tar, and even dung and corpses.
Okay, it doesn’t sound as ominous as a murder hole, but this seemingly quirky method of defense was first employed by none other than the Romans who, as we know, were not above using brutal tactics when they saw fit.
The ancient Romans would position a gaggle of geese outside of their fortifications. This served a few purposes. For one thing, geese are loud. If someone approaches, you’ll know about it. Secondly, geese are territorial and will attack. So yes, the goose was a sort of living, breathing, pouncing alarm system for the ancient Romans.
The practice, however, continues even into modern day, most notably with the “Scotch Watch”--the famous gaggle of geese that until 2012 protected the warehouse of Ballantine’s, the Scottish whiskey makers.
4. Charms, Amulets, and Religious Decor
So far this list has included defense systems used primarily by the castle-and-mansion set. But what about those who couldn’t afford to build a moat, or who worried more about simple night thieves than military sieges?
Countless cultures, religions, and traditions around the world have produced decidedly more peaceful and folksy methods for keeping a home safe from evils--be they physical or spiritual. These can come in the form of hamsas, mezuzahs, icons, red-painted doors, and other spiritual-decorative practices that served as a sort of esoteric defense system. Many of these traditions still exist, and if you enter a home and see unfamiliar charms, amulets, or colors positioned near the entrance, there’s a good chance it was borne from a long tradition of spiritual home security.
5. Mercury-Filled Rivers
This unique home defense system may have been built on Earth, but it wasn’t built for an “earthly” home, per se.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, took great pains to prepare his tomb in the belief that it would serve as his home in the afterworld. This underground tomb, which ended up being an almost city-sized mausoleum, is most famous for the TerraCotta Army. According to ancient documents, it’s also home to a mercury-filled network of rivers and lakes, mercury having been believed to be both a security defense and a bestower of immortality. Though the existence of the mercury rivers is not proven, recent soil samples have given credence to the presence of mercury below.
6. Punji Sticks
Though a relatively simple and archaic form of defense, these sharpened, hidden bamboo poles played a big role in defense right until recent history.
Punji Sticks are typically made from sharpened wood or bamboo sticks and hidden in brush or tall grass in order to wound unsuspecting passersby. They may seem unsophisticated, but that’s precisely what made them so successful--their natural materials made them easy to camouflage. Sometimes they would be coated in poison or other hazardous materials, but the punctures alone from a Punji Stick could be enough to halt an intruder.
Punji Sticks were used as recently as the Vietnam War as a popular weapon of the Viet Cong. In 1983 they were banned by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons alongside other forms of booby traps and landmines.
7. Labyrinths and Mazes
As far as physically and psychologically crippling defense systems go, this has to be one of the more entertaining of the bunch.
Labyrinths have been used strategically at least since the time of the Greek Myths, when King Minos of Crete had a giant maze built to trap the Minotaur. The labyrinth has been utilized by myriad cultures across the world, from Greece and Egypt to Iron Age Europe and India, and while some have served decorative or meditative purposes, others were indeed used tactically to re-route, trap, and even mentally torture unwanted visitors.
Though labyrinths can be physically challenging, the psychological effects far outweigh any bodily dangers. After all, the neverending cascade of dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, turn-arounds, and even puzzles and riddles, is likely to drive you to insanity long before the dehydration and starvation sets in.
8. Puzzle Locks
Most people throughout history have relied on the threat of violence as a security measure (murder holes, anyone?) But there were some who believed that intellect posed the stronger barrier between thieves and their beloved treasures.
Puzzle locks have appeared in many forms throughout the ages. They were typically used for chests and cases, and are probably best compared to the codes we use to open electronic safes. However, these weren’t as simple as typing in your birthday or 4-digit code: puzzle locks included complex, brain-twisting mechanics that required a mixture of problem solving, creativity, and agility. The ancient Romans, for instance, used portable puzzle locks forged from a perplexing series of rings, chains, and levers that needed to be manipulated just so in order to access the money inside.
9. Nightingale Floors
These squeaking floors may seem laughably harmless, but ask any teenager who’s tried to sneak in at night without waking their parents and they’ll tell you that Nightingale floors are actually an ingenious way to detect intruders.
Nightingale floors, also known as uguisubari, were invented in Japan during the Edo period. Carpenters installed special wood flooring in the castle halls that would squeak, or more accurately, chirp, when tread upon. Legend has it that since the noise was inevitable no matter who walked across the floor, the castle staff developed special walking patterns so as to distinguish their footsteps from those of their enemies.
If you want to take up the challenge yourself and try crossing the threshold without making a peep, you can still find Nightingale floors in the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, as well as other select temples and castles throughout Japan.
10. Leaving the Kitchen Light On
Hey, that’s not an ancient tactic, you say. No--but it might as well be. If you’re one of the countless Americans still resorting to primitive tricks like leaving a light on to trick burglars into thinking your home, it may be time to get serious about home security. No, we’re not talking about building your own moat. The best home security systems today are affordable, effective, easy to use--and, most importantly--will keep intruders out, no bears required.