Elixir of Life Discovered Inside Chinese Tomb

On October 2018, archaeologists in central China's Henan Province unearthed a large number of color-painted clay pots and bronze artifacts from 2,000 year old tomb, which contain some kind of liquid. It was yellow and smelled of alcohol, similar in appearance and scent to rice wine.This find was of particular note because so much of the liquid had survived. The pot-bellied bronze vessel’s lid was still in place, and the seal was firm enough to prevent its evaporation. 

At that time they poured liquid out of a bronze pot unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 8) tomb into a measuring glass, which gave off an aroma of rich wine. Similar-aged rice wine had earlier been found in other tombs dating back to the Western Han period. Liquor made from rice or sorghum grains were a major part of ceremonies and ritual sacrifices in ancient China. It was often contained with elaborate bronze cast vessels.

"There are 3.5 liters of the liquid in the color of transparent yellow. It smells like wine," said Shi Jiazhen, head of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in the city of Luoyang. He said the discovered content needs to undergo further lab research so the team can accurately ascertain the ingredients of the liquid.

Shi said the bronze pot containing the liquid is one of the two big bronze items unearthed from the tomb. The other is a lamp in the shape of a wild goose, which was the first of its kind found in the city of Luoyang, capital of 13 dynasties, with a history of 3,000 years.

However, laboratory testing on the fluid has found that the preliminary identification of grain wine was incorrect. It is not alcohol of any kind. In fact it is a mixture of potassium nitrate and alunite, an aluminium potassium sulfate mineral. These are two ingredients that according to ancient Taoist texts could be used to create an elixir of immortality.

Waidan, meaning external elixir, was the earliest branch of Chinese alchemy, focusing on the achievement of immortality by combining metals and chemicals in a bronze crucible. There are surviving texts going back to the second century B.C. that describe the artificial creation of elixirs of life. Mercury and lead were the foundation of most formulae and it might seem ironic that they are both deadly poisons but it isn’t, really, because the power to end life was seen as the other side of their putative power to extend life.

The ancient Chinese believed that ingesting long-lasting precious substances such as jade, cinnabar or hematite would confer some of that longevity on the person who consumed them. Gold was considered particularly potent, as it was a non-tarnishing precious metal; the idea of potable or drinkable gold is found in China by the end of the third century BC. The most famous Chinese alchemical book, the Danjing yaojue (Essential Formulas of Alchemical Classics) attributed to Sun Simiao (c. 581 – c. 682 CE), a famous medical specialist respectfully called "King of Medicine" by later generations, discusses in detail the creation of elixirs for immortality (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of mercury and arsenic are prominent, and most are poisonous) as well as those for curing certain diseases and the fabrication of precious stones.

“It is the first time that mythical ‘immortality medicines’ have been found in China,” said Shi Jiazhen, head of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Luoyang.

“The liquid is of significant value for the study of ancient Chinese thoughts on achieving immortality and the evolution of Chinese civilization,” Shi added.

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