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A pair of bronze pots, one containing the first real example of an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province.

Elixir of Life Found: 2,000-Year-Old Bottles Contain First Known Chinese ‘Immortality Medicine’

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Who wants to live forever? This has been a dream for many people all around the world for a very long time. It was written about in several ancient texts, and legends and myths suggest some people even achieved the goal. While most would agree today that those stories are nothing more than fairy tales, things were different 2,000 years ago. And archaeologists have recently found a real example of an ancient Chinese elixir of life in Luoyang, Henan Province.

According to CGTN, Shi Jiazhen, head of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Luoyang, told reporters that this is “the first time that mythical 'immortality medicines' have been found in China.” About 3.5 liters of the liquid were found in a bronze bottle in a noble family’s Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-8 AD) tomb. Perhaps the family had strong faith in the power of the liquid.

About 3.5 liters of the liquid, now said to be an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were found in a bronze bottle. (Kaznews.kz)

About 3.5 liters of the liquid, now said to be an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were found in a bronze bottle. ( Kaznews.kz)

What was in the Chinese Elixir of Life?

Xinhua reports that the heady alcohol aroma led archaeologists to think the liquid was some kind of liquor when they found it last October. But it was something far more interesting. Lab results showed the liquid contains potassium nitrate and alunite. These two ingredients were staples in a Taoist elixir of life recipe. Today, potassium nitrate is primarily used in fertilizers, fireworks, gunpowder, and rockets. Alunite has also been used as a type of potash (fertilizer).

While those ingredients probably are not the best options for making an elixir meant to grant the drinker immortality, they are not the most surprising ingredients in ancient Chinese recipes for eternal life either. Wu Mingren has written that several ancient Chinese emperors and members of the nobility sought out Taoist alchemists,

“who would provide them with some sort of substance that would supposedly give them immortality. The ingestion of such elixirs, however, certainly did not allow them to live forever. In many cases the elixirs, which contain extremely poisonous elements, (ironically) were responsible for the deaths of those who consumed them.”

'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

The alchemists mixed different organic and inorganic compounds, since there was no set recipe for creating an elixir of immortality. One of the favored additions, however, was mercury. They were fascinated by it because it was a liquid metal at room temperature. For them, it suggested the metal had some spiritual significance. But just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it is intended for human consumption. In fact, mercury is extremely poisonous and can decrease cognitive function, cause kidney problems, weakness, and even death.

It may not have killed the person found in the tomb, unlike the heavily mercury-laden potions that almost undoubtedly took the lives of many Chinese emperors , Shi states that the discovery of the elixir of life found in the Luoyang tomb “is of significant value for the study of ancient Chinese thoughts on achieving immortality and the evolution of Chinese civilization.”

The Emperor’s Hunt for Immortality

One of the most famous stories about the search for an elixir of life in ancient China is the tale of Qin Shi Huang . China’s first emperor was so intent on cheating death that it is said he sent “every scholar, magician, and wise man in the nation on a quest to find an elixir that would keep him from dying.” But all he got for the extensive heartache, pain, paranoia, and pointless journeys and murders in his attempts at achieving immortality was death by mercury poisoning.

A portrait painting of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from an 18th-century album of Chinese emperors’ portraits. (Public Domain)

A portrait painting of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from an 18th-century album of Chinese emperors’ portraits. ( Public Domain )

Other Artifacts Found in the Tomb

Returning to the Luoyang tomb excavated in October, archaeologists found other artifacts alongside the fascinating liquid in the bronze pot. Clay painted pots and jade and bronze artifacts were also unearthed. Well-preserved human remains, probably the tomb’s owner, were also found.

The tomb itself measures  210 square meters (2260 sq. ft.) . Pan Fusheng, the archaeologist in charge of excavations, expressed the importance of the tomb and the discoveries within it to reporters. He said , “The tomb provides valuable material for study of the life of Western Han nobles as well as the funeral rituals and customs of the period.”

Excavating the tomb. (Korrieri)

Excavating the tomb. ( Korrieri)

Top Image: A pair of bronze pots, one containing the first real example of an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province. Source: VCG

By Alicia McDermott

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