Taboos and magical knots

With no preconceptions, I looked into why and how the earliest ancient cultures around the Tigris and Euphrates solved the problem of protecting their property. How they “locked” their doors before bolts and beams were operated with tools – keys. This section deals with the prehistory of door locks, effective ways of blocking entrance to forbidden rooms and other areas in the earliest cities.


Over 5000 years ago, the Sumerians were the first people to live in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They developed the first writing system, cuneiform. Later the area was divided into smaller kingdoms, which were often at war with each other. They were small city-states, each surrounded by a wall of stone or sun-dried mud bricks. The gates in the city walls were the only passages into and out of the city, and were well guarded. Each city had at least one shrine and one palace (royal demesne), built of natural rock. In addition there was sometimes a walled garden facility, also with a gate, outside the city walls.

The simple residential buildings lined the streets, and shared walls with each other. Naturally, when the first houses were built with walls and roofs of sun-dried brick, they left an opening in one wall to get in and out. Gradually, builders began making that hole rectangular and human-sized. It was covered with a mat of woven reeds, an animal skin, or a woven wool drapery hung from the top of the opening.

Locks and keys

In the ancient Middle East and Egypt, palaces and temples were usually never left unattended. Just like today, human guards were the surest form of protection. Armed guards were positioned at entrances and exposed areas. One famous example is the grave of Tutankhamun, which was discovered in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. On both sides of the sealed opening to the grave were sculptures of spear-carrying guards.

In some cases, rulers also used hungry animals – dogs, snakes and crocodiles – as “locks” in antechambers, passages surrounded by embankments or dams, to protect against intruders.

Classical Greek literature sometimes also describes mythological beasts as guards. In the story of Jason and Medea, the Golden Fleece was guarded by a dragon. Oedipus, king of Thebes, freed his country from the plague of the Sphinx, a monster with the face of the woman and the body of a lion, who blocked the entrance to the city. Everyone who wanted to get in or out had to solve a riddle, and those who were unable to answer were torn to shreds by the Sphinx.

Hinges, doors, locks
Lock bolts or beams could only work in a swinging door or gate, which in turn required hinge pins, one on top and one on bottom. No hinges, no gate.

As early as 4500 years ago, there were doors that swung on their own hinges. Originally they could only be locked from the inside using beams and bars. The only manageable material available for making a door or gate was wood, which was an expensive product imported from the cedar forests of distant Lebanon. Therefore, doors and gates only existed in city walls, palaces and temples.

Before the advent of locks and keys, inner doors in temples and palaces could be secured using a taboo, seal or magical knot, sometimes combined with door beams. In some cases, a magical incantation or frightening image (code) could be enough to prevent or inhibit unwanted visitors. Other versions of protection were secret doors, hidden passageways and labyrinths.

While the Sumerian peoples and Hittites did not have key-operated wooden tumbler locks, they do appear to have been used in ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia and Khorsabad about 4000 years ago, and appeared in ancient Egypt a bit later. Such locks were also used on interior doors to rooms. As the doors were made solely of wood, they were not particularly sturdy and had a limited lifespan in damp environments.

The primary function of locks and keys is to protect belongings from theft. Your belongings and mine. But keys have a dual nature, practical and symbolic – they can open, close, preserve, hide and set free, but they are also a sign of power and dignity. And in some cases, this is still true.

Today’s locks and security solutions

Welcome to ASSA ABLOY’s product pages for more information about today’s locks, access control, mobile keys with NFC, door automatics and more. In the ASSA ABLOY solution pages you can experience lock and security solutions for any door opening.