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 hevenly 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)


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