December 14, 2008

Mechanical marvels in National Treasure 2

National Treasure: Book of Secrets features not one, not two, but three mechanical marvels. It's a testament to those amazing Mesoamerican Indians, who built so many lost cities with sliding doors, closing walls, and falling boulders.

Forget the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, or the Great Wall of China. Unless aliens helped these Indians, as aliens so often do, these mechanisms should go down in history as some of mankind's greatest accomplishments. They should count as three of the Seven Wonders of the World.

[Spoiler alert]

To set the scene, Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his associates have arrived at a fictitious lake near Mount Rushmore. They’re searching for Cibola, the Mesoamerican city of gold. In quick succession they encounter three mechanical marvels:

Remote control

1) The adventurers are standing on a promontory of rock a couple hundred feet high. Across a strait of water, a couple hundred feet away, is another promontory of rock. Ben puts his hand in a crevice, pulls a lever, and the rock face on the opposite side collapses, revealing a cavern.

Think about this a moment. Through some mechanical system of gears, levers, and pulleys, Ben has sent a command across a gulf of water. This command traveled straight down 200 feet, under the lake bed 200 feet, and up the opposite side 200 feet. The Mesoamericans drilled through the solid rock of the two promontories and the waterlogged earth separating them. After 1,400-plus years of earthquakes, settling land, and continental drift, the 600-foot-long mechanism is in perfect working order.

Balancing act

2) Inside the cavern, Gates and three others become trapped on a freestanding platform about the size of a large room. It's balanced on a single point, and it teeters like a teeter-totter whenever people shift position. If they don’t balance their weight around the platform, it'll tip over and they'll go sliding into the abyss.

Again, think about this a moment. Constructing a teetering platform would be difficult today, which may be why no one has done it. This platform is at least 1,400 years old. Again, despite earthquakes, settling land, and continental drift, it's still exquisitely balanced and functioning perfectly.

Water works

3) In another chamber, water is pouring in from several tunnels and filling up the place. Ben deduces that turning a drumlike wheel will lower gates over the tunnels and shut off the water. They turn the giant spigot and it works.

This is perhaps the least incredible of the mechanical marvels. The controls have to go only from the center of the cavern to the sides and up the walls. Yet the idea of sliding stone panels is simply unbelievable.

Consider the Egyptian pyramids and temples, Greek and Roman temples, and Mesoamerican pyramids and temples. I can't think of a single case where ancient people managed to construct a workable sliding wall or door made of stone. Yet this is a staple of silly adventure movies. Doors and floors slide open or closed, and walls converge for the kill. And it's all automatic. You touch the wrong spot on the wall or floor and some amazing system of counterweights triggers a sliding panel.


It would be nice if Mesoamericans were advanced enough to create mechanical marvels that no one else managed. In reality, the concept is not only ridiculous, it's counterproductive. When people see the real Mesoamerican cities and the phony mechanical marvels, they assume Indians couldn't have built them. They conclude aliens or Atlanteans created the structures and primitive, superstitious Indians merely found them. That perception doesn't help Indians and arguably hurts them.

For more on the subject, see Indiana Jones and the Stereotypes of Doom.


dmarks said...

"It's a testament to those amazing Mesoamerican Indians, who built so many lost cities with sliding doors, closing walls, and falling boulders."

The most amazing thing I've seen like this in the movies are the light-triggered traps in "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Amazing as in preposterous.

At least the things you name, while strething it, are imaginable using mechanical devices, without interejecting such things as relays and photocells which are needed for light-sensitive triggers.

Anonymous said...

Again, another example of anti-Indian racism, only this time in the fields of mechanical engineering and architecture.

A Mormon missionary once told me that since we were of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or Lamanites, we had a highly advanced civilization until their version of God cursed us for our collective no-goodness -and hence, we relinquished our scientific enlightenment and were subsequently reduced to "savagery."

When I asked this missionary how we could redeem our race (I was only 19 and just a young dumb chancre mechanic {or medic} in the military), I was told in no uncertain terms that I must simply embrace the teachings of the sacred Book of Mormon.

dmarks said...

Melvin: Next time that happens, ask him to show you photographs of the golden plates.

Mormonism grew out of the belief that pre-Columbian Native Americans were too stupid to have been able to build burial mounds. There were a lot of wild ideas about them back then.