Monday, December 10, 2007

Buried rivers of mercury

Yesterday I got to see the British Museum's Terracotta Warriors exhibition, The First Emperor. There is more than just an army buried down there: there are bronze birds, musicians, civil servants - everything an emperor might need to make the afterlife more agreeable. In his Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) Sima Qian had written (c90 BCE) of 'Palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects were brought to fill up the tomb... Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth' (trans. Burton Watson). Now it seems this description may not have been hyperbole. Intriguingly, tests have shown high levels of mercury at the site, so perhaps there really is a whole buried landscape under there. Chinese archaeologists are proceeding cautiously, searching for non-invasive ways of uncovering the past without a full excavation, so it could be some years before we know.

The first page of Sima Qian's Shiji (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Update: April 2015
From The Guardian today: 'An archaeologist has discovered liquid mercury at the end of a tunnel beneath a Mexican pyramid, a finding that could suggest the existence of a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber far below one of the most ancient cities of the Americas.'  It's fascinating that a similar idea was in use on the other side of the world.  Apparently the ancient Mesoamericans could produce liquid mercury by heating mercury ore (cinnabar) which they also used for its blood-red pigment.   According to Annabeth Headreck, an expert on central American art, the mercury “could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.”  Shiny and scintillating materials seem to have been particularly important: many ritual objects were made reflective with mica and in 2013 'archaeologists using a robot found metallic spheres which they dubbed “disco balls” in an un-excavated portion of the tunnel, near pyrite mirrors. “I wish I could understand all the things these guys are finding down there,” Headrick said, “but it’s unique and that’s why it’s hard.”'


Anonymous said...

I went on a trip to China and it is a proven fact that there are rivers of mercury. They don't want to open up the tombs because then mercury would be released on the villages nearby because the mercury is probably all evaporated by now.

Anonymous said...

That's a bit silly. The boiling point of mercury is over 300 degrees celsius. It shouldn't have been able to evaporate. If the heat had been enough for it to evaporate, the gas would fill the chamber but during the colder times of the year, it would condense again and refill the rivers.

Anonymous said...

Because water never evaporates under 100 degrees Celsius, ever, because nothing can ever evaporate underneath it's boiling point