A mysterious liquid discovered in a 2,000-year-old Chinese tomb has been identified by archaeologists as an ancient medical concoction known as the "elixir of immortality."
The 3.5 liters (0.9 gallons) of yellowish fluid, contained within a bronze pot uncovered last October, has the rich of scent of alcohol and was initially believed to be wine. Researchers were surprised by lab results that showed the liquid is comprised of potassium nitrate and alunite –– ingredients associated in ancient Taoists texts with an "immortality elixir."
"It is the first time that mythical 'immortality medicines' have been found in China," Shi Jiazhen, head of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Luoyang, told Xinhua News Service. "The liquid is of significant value for the study of ancient Chinese thoughts on achieving immortality and the evolution of Chinese civilization."
According to Chinese history, many ancient emperors were obsessed with discovering liquids or artifacts that might grant them immortal life. Perhaps the most famous was Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 247 BC – 220 BC, and sent his personal Taoist alchemist Xu Fu on numerous expeditions to discover the elixir of immortality. His last expedition, which included thousands of crew members to assist in the search, reportedly led to the discovery of Japan.
Naturally, there were also plenty of alchemists willing to try to create the secret to everlasting life on their own. As many of their elixirs often contained precious metals and minerals such as mercury and arsenic, they were often extremely toxic to those willing to try a swig. The "Twenty-Four Histories," official Chinese historical texts covering a period from 3000 BC to the Ming dynasty in the 17th century, record numerous deaths of emperors and other high-ranking officials from toxic elixirs intended to extend lifespan.
As for the elixir found within the tomb in Luoyang, George Dvorsky on Gizmodo points out that it's not something you would necessarily want to sample.
"Alunite is fairly benign, but potassium nitrate in high doses is associated with certain health risks, ranging from eye and skin irritation to kidney failure, anemia, and even death."
Is it possible the drink may have killed the tomb's occupant? Archaeologists can't say for certain, but it's clear based on the remaining liquid and its presence in the tomb that it didn't have the desired effect. Then again, when describing the state of the deceased found within the sprawling 2,260 square-foot tomb, the dig team found the corpse "remarkably well-preserved."