Sunday, June 18, 2023

What Were The Mayans Doing With Large Quantities Of Liquid Mercury?

theguardian  |  An archaeologist has discovered liquid mercury at the end of a tunnel beneath a Mexican pyramid, a finding that could suggest the existence of a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber far below one of the most ancient cities of the Americas.

Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez announced on Friday that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, the ruined city in central Mexico.

Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003 after 1,800 years. Last November, Gómez and a team announced they had found three chambers at the tunnel’s 300ft end, almost 60ft below the temple. Near the entrance of the chambers, they found a trove of strange artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls.

Slowly working their way down the broad, dark and deep corridor beneath the pyramid, battling humidity and now obliged to wear protective gear against the dangers of mercury poisoning, Gómez and his team are meticulously exploring the three chambers.

Mercury is toxic and capable of devastating the human body through prolonged exposure; the liquid metal had no apparent practical purpose for ancient Mesoamericans. But it has been discovered at other sites. Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that archaeologists have found mercury at three other sites around Central America.

Gómez speculated that the mercury could be a sign that his team is close to uncovering the first royal tomb ever found in Teotihuacan after decades of excavation – and centuries of mystery surrounding the leadership of the cryptic but well-preserved city.

The mercury may have symbolized an underworld river or lake, Gómez postulated, an idea that resonated with Annabeth Headreck, a professor at the University of Denver and the author of works on Teotihuacan and Mesoamerican art.

The shimmering, reflective qualities of liquid mercury may have resembled “an underworld river, not that different from the river Styx,” Headrick said, “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,” she said. “It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.”

Joyce said that archaeologists know that scintillation fascinated the ancient people generally, and that the liquid mercury may have been regarded as “somewhat magical … there for ritual purposes or symbolic purposes.”

Headrick said that mercury was not the only object of fascination: “a lot of ritual objects were made reflective with mica,” a sparkling mineral likely imported to the region.

In 2013 archaeologists using a robot found metallic spheres which they dubbed “disco balls” in an un-excavated portion of the tunnel, near pyrite mirrors. “I wish I could understand all the things these guys are finding down there,” Headrick said, “but it’s unique and that’s why it’s hard.”

 

 

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