Liquid mercury found under Teotihuacan temple

The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.

The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.

Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.

Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.

Mercuric sulfide is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)

Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.

I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.

They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.

As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.

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17 Comments »

Comment by Hannah
2015-04-25 23:58:39

This is so cool! Thanks for sharing!

Comment by livius drusus
2015-04-28 15:09:32

You’re welcome! Mercury is totally cool. Are you old enough to remember how awesome it was when a thermometer broke and the balls of mercury went trundling about?

 
 
Comment by angie
2015-04-26 01:03:57

Fascinating stuff! Don’t know much about Mercury, but the idea of rivers flowing with it underground is intriguing to say the least. I must read more about it – thanks for the enlightening post! :D

Comment by livius drusus
2015-04-28 15:10:13

Mercury is as beautiful as it is poisonous. It’s no wonder so many different cultures all over the world have been fascinated by it.

 
 
Comment by Helena Worth
2015-04-26 08:09:25

What a spectacular sight that must have been! Thank you for sharing this; such discoveries are always a delight to hear about.

Comment by livius drusus
2015-04-28 15:11:17

You’re welcome! I’m delighted you share my delight. :)

 
 
Comment by Lauriana
2015-04-28 01:46:51

This is fascinating!
I don’t know anything about the significance of mercury in ancient cultures in the Americas (and in the case of Teotihuacan, I guess no-one does so even the experts are probably guessing based on what is known about the Maya and Olmec traditions) but both in Europe and China it often played an important part in alchemy and healing. There was even a notion that ingesting mercury in small amounts every day could make someone immortal (although I think those who tried that probably died from mercury poisoning).

Comment by livius drusus
2015-04-28 15:22:35

Good point. It makes sense that the mercury rivers in the Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum, deadly though they were, symbolized immortality.

 
 
Comment by Duncan Craig
2015-05-02 18:40:09

Mercury has played a role in alchemy in Europe and China, but doesn’t its specific use at Teotihuacan and in Xian indicate a direct relationship between the two cultures? Particularly given that both tumuli adhere to the same geomantic layout,… as well as both being built in the second century BC?

Comment by livius drusus
2015-05-06 15:34:43

I don’t think we can leap to that conclusion without a great deal of further evidence. People worldwide have common fascinations that developed independently. Gold is a classic example.

 
 
Comment by John Cooper
2015-05-14 20:54:24

When I was in ninth grade (this would have been–let’s see–1975 or 1976), the chemistry teacher gave the class an open beaker of mercury to pass around. I remember it as being small and weighing five pounds. I’m glad nobody dropped it.

 
Comment by Stu
2015-05-29 14:22:00

Mmmm, do you know Mercury is used by NASA to propel some of their latest cutting edge Mercury Ion Drive engines. It’s claimed in Hindu manuscripts that Vimanas (UFO visitor ships) were also powered by mercury giro engines. I always wonder about these sorts of discoveries and how there could be more to it than meets the eye.

 
Comment by Struan Robertson
2015-09-27 10:21:32

I’m confused – the article describes the excavation of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetezcoatl) as “the pre-Aztec pyramid.” The article later states that Teotihuacan is “a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities.”

If the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is a “pre-Aztec pyramid,” how can it also be “a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities?”

????

 
Comment by Duncan Craig
2015-09-27 13:40:05

The Aztecs founded Tenochticlan in 1368 ad from the north. Teotihuacan was built during the first centuries of our era and was contemporaneous with the rise of Mayan lowland kingdoms.

 
Comment by Struan Robertson
2015-09-27 20:55:21

Thanks for the response.
How was the date of the building of Tenochticlan (13th century)arrived at?
Carbon dating? Stable isotope?

 
Comment by Struan Robertson
2015-09-27 21:01:08

Sorry – I, of course, meant “Teotihuacan.”

 
Comment by Don Gammelgaard
2018-04-24 03:12:59

I’m so fascinated it hast to have everything to do with life I have five generation of miner’s in family just seeing how it is used to retrieve fine gold then to retort the gold from it leaving a solid of gold and then to now the Mercury vapours back to be used over and over again I hope I live to Long enough to the end result thanks Don G

 
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