Liquid mercury has been found in large quantities beneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez has spent the past six years excavating a tunnel that had been opened in 2003, the first time in 1800 years. Mercury has only been found at three other sites in Central America, two Maya and one Olmec.
Gómez suspects his team is close to finding a royal tomb, and that the liquid mercury may have formed a river or lake. Annabeth Headreck, a professor at the University of Denver, agrees:
“[The liquid mercury could symbolise] an underworld river, not that different from the river Styx, if only in the concept that it’s the entrance to the supernatural world and the entrance to the underworld.
Mirrors were considered a way to look into the supernatural world, they were a way to divine what might happen in the future. It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.
Aside from the mercury, excavations have found chambers containing thousands of objects, including jade statues, jaguar remains, and carved shells. In 2013, archaeologists used a camera-equipped robot to discover hundreds of spheres they dubbed “disco balls.” No human remains have been found so far.
Tombs with rivers of mercury aren’t unique to Central America. China has its own pyramids (more earth mounds than masoned stone) near the ancient capital of Xian. A stone’s throw away, buried deep beneath one such pyramid mound and surrounded by terracotta armies, the tomb of China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang is rumoured to have… wait for it… rivers of mercury. The presence of mercury, and the possibility of deadly traps that would make even Indiana Jones wary, presents problems for Chinese archaeologists who have yet to excavate the tomb (mostly out of respect). Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with immortality, and mercury it seems, swallowing mercury pills believing it would extend his lifespan. Curiously, ancient Chinese geomancy apparently considered the landscape surrounding the tomb to be in the shape of a dragon, with the Emperor’s tomb itself being the eye of the dragon. Feathered serpent?
Is it a coincidence pyramid tombs containing liquid mercury can be found in such diverse and distant cultures as China and Central America? Perhaps not, as there’s evidence suggesting the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1050 BCE) had contact with the Americas. In 1996, Dr Mike Xu presented research showing the striking similarities between written characters found on Olmec statuary with that of the Shang, as well as the fascination both cultures had with jade. Unfortunately, his research has disappeared from the Texas Christian University’s archives.
Fortunately, a terrific paper by David Kaufman, PhD in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Kansas, is available online. Did Ancient China Influence the Olmec? covers much of the same territory Dr Xu did and is a fascinating read well worth your time. Additionally, Pre-Columbiana: A Journal of Long-Distance Contacts also covers the topic and raises plenty of questions.
Theories of Chinese contact with Pre-Columbian America aren’t new. In 1953, American researcher (and WWII codebreaker) Henriette Mertz self-published her book Pale Ink: Two Ancient Records of Chinese Exploration In America. Mertz believed a 5th century account by a Buddhist missionary describing the legendary land of Fusang was in fact Central America. The book was published in a second-edition in 1972. However, Sinologist Joseph Needham wasn’t impressed, writing that Mert’s theories “require a heroic suspension of disbelief.”
Whether there is a link between ancient China and the cultures of Central America remains to be seen. Regardless, there’s an exciting mystery unfolding at Teotihuacan. Liquid mercury and disco balls — the people who built Teotihuacan must have had some interesting parties!
Further reading from the Grail archives: