Archeology Science X-Files

The Mysterious Appeal Of Mercury To The Ancients

The Mysterious Appeal Of Mercury To The Ancients

Beneath the Temple of Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico, and in the Chinese First Emperor’s tomb, archaeologists discovered enormous amount of mercury. It is suggested that ancient people thought that mercury could bestow immortality, but is there some other meaning for the use of mercury in ancient times?

The Tomb of the First Emperor

Centuries and centuries ago, there was a Chinese courtier named Sima Qian, who was sentenced to castration because he had spoken up in favor of a defeated general. In those times, that was a death sentence because men of his class were expected to commit suicide rather than let that happen. However, Sima Qian accepted his castration so that he could complete the histories that had been started by his father, which he wound end passing on to his daughter and then his grandson until the time came when it could be published.

The Mysterious Appeal Of Mercury To The AncientsA burial site of the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, Xi'an, China. Photo © Aaron Zhu

As a result, we have what are now called The Records of the Grand Historian, which offers incredible insight into ancient Chinese history with remarkable accuracy. One example is Sima Qian’s statement that the tomb of the First Emperor of China had included flowing mercury for the purpose of simulating the rivers as well as the sea, which is supported by the fact that the local soil contains levels of mercury that are much higher than normal. Likewise, one of Sima Qian’s other statements has been interpreted to mean that the construction of the tomb broke groundwater, which is supported by the existence of a dam as well as a drainage system that has saved it from being flooded by said phenomenon. So far, archaeologists have not excavated the tomb of the First Emperor because they don’t have the capability to perfectly preserve its contents, meaning that no more than cursory studies are possible for the time being. Simply put, no one wants a repeat of the situation with the famous Terracotta Warriors, which had coats of paint that started flaking off as soon as they were exposed to the elements.

The Ruins of Teotihuacan

With that said, the tomb of the First Emperor of China wasn’t the only place built by ancient peoples belonging to ancient civilizations to have significant amounts of mercury. For example, archaeologists discovered huge pools of mercury beneath one of the pyramids in the ruined city of Teotihuacan called the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in 2015, which are something that has been found at other sites situated throughout Central America by other researchers. For the time being, the purpose of these mercury pools remain a mystery, but there has been speculation about them serving as representations of underworld rivers, which would have been an impression enhanced by the material’s strong association with the supernatural. Considering the expense of constructing entire pools of mercury as well as the other precious items found nearby, it is no wonder that one of the researchers involved in the effort speculated about them being a sign that a royal burial was near.

The Mysterious Appeal Of Mercury To The AncientsTeotihuacan - Temple of the Feathered Serpent - view from the top of the Adosada platform (Image Source)

What Made Mercury So Special to Our Predecessors?

Based on these two examples, it should be clear that a lot of ancient people from early civilizations ascribed considerable value to the element of mercury. In part, this would have been because mercury was a rare substance that had to be extracted via hazardous processes from cinnabar and other ores. However, it should also be noted that the curious nature of mercury created various beliefs about its magical potential, with examples ranging from the ancient Chinese belief that mercury could be used to promote health to the medieval European belief that mercury could be used to turn baser metals into gold. As a result, mercury often took on spiritual significance, which in turn, made them that much more suitable for use in ancient tombs.

featured image: Reconstruction of the facade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Teotihuacán)

Now located in the National Museum of Anthropology (Source)

The Mysterious Appeal Of Mercury To The Ancients
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