A yellowish liquid found in a bronze pot dating back some 2,000 years is not wine, as Chinese archaeologists initially thought. It’s actually an “elixir of immortality” concocted during ancient times.
The bronze pot was discovered last October by archaeologists working at the tomb of a noble family in the Henan Province of central China. The 210-square-meter site in the city of Luoyang dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 8 CE) and, in addition to the pot, yielded the well-preserved remains of a nobleman, painted clay pots, materials made from jade and bronze, and a lamp in the shape of a wild goose.
Intriguingly, the pot contained 3.5 litres of a yellowish liquid exhibiting a very strong alcohol-like smell. At the time, archaeologists figured it was wine—a conclusion consistent with other discoveries dating back to the same period. Back then, wine made from rice and sorghum grains were used in ritual sacrifices and ceremonies, reported Xinhua.
But as Xinhua points out in an update to this discovery, further lab work has shown that the substance isn’t wine at all. The liquid is primarily comprised of potassium nitrate and alunite—the main ingredients of a life-enriching elixir documented in ancient Taoist texts.
“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. “The liquid is of significant value for the study of ancient Chinese thoughts on achieving immortality and the evolution of Chinese civilisation.”
It’s doubtful, of course, that the combination of potassium nitrate and alunite worked as intended, the former being used in meat processing, fertilisers, and fireworks, and the latter being used to manufacture alum, which is used in pickling and baking powder. 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, anaemia, and even death.
It’s unclear whether this beverage was actually intended to be consumed, or whether it merely served as a ritual burial object. The only way to know for sure whether the concoction really confers immortality will be to test it on a human subject. Any volunteers?
Image: Xinhua/Li An