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Archaeologists find potion for eternal life in an ancient Chinese tomb

Harry Pettit, March 5, 2019 6:45PM The Sun

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Chinese alchemists like the one in this drawing brewed potions for people who wanted to live forever. media_cameraChinese alchemists like the one in this drawing brewed potions for people who wanted to live forever.

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A mysterious potion discovered in an ancient Chinese tomb was brewed to give eternal* life to whoever drank it.

Scientists said the potion was in a 2000-year-old bronze* pot in a burial tomb in central China.

The potion that promised eternal life is in the glass jar on the left. It was found in this ancient bronze pot, thought to be 2000 years old. media_cameraThe potion that promised eternal life is in the glass jar on the left. It was found in this ancient bronze pot, thought to be 2000 years old.

The tomb belonged to a noble* family that lived in the country’s Henan province during the Han dynasty. A dynasty is a royal family. The Han dynasty was in power from 206BC — 220AD, which is from about 2200 years ago to about 1800 years ago.

Ancient Taoist* writings suggest the family brewed it in an attempt to live forever, Xinhua news agency reported.

It was common for Chinese emperors and noblemen to search for a recipe for an immortality* potion, often with deadly results.

Many were killed during their quest as they added toxic* metals and minerals such as mercury, lead and arsenic.

No one knows whether the ancient Henan family ever drank their possibly magical broth.

Around 3.5 litres of the liquid was found during excavations of their tomb.

Archaeologists first thought they had found an alcoholic drink because of the strong alcoholic smell.

But lab tests revealed the potion is mostly potassium nitrate and alunite, which are poisonous, naturally occurring minerals.

These minerals were also in an immortality medicine mentioned in an ancient Taoist text, according to Pan Fusheng, an archaeologist on the project.

“It is the first time that mythical* ‘immortality medicines’ have been found in China,” said Shi Jiazhen, head of China’s Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

A large number of colour-painted clay pots and jade and bronze artefacts were also found in the tomb, as well as the remains of the occupants.

The tomb contained many large, coloured pots and metal artefacts. media_cameraThe tomb contained many large, coloured pots and metal artefacts.

“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,” Pan said.

Archaeologists are digging up the ancient Chinese tomb in Henan Province. The tomb belonged to a noble family from the Han dynasty. Picture: Alamy media_cameraArchaeologists are digging up the ancient Chinese tomb in Henan Province. The tomb belonged to a noble family from the Han dynasty. Picture: Alamy

Chinese alchemists began making immortality potions as early as 3000 years ago.

Alchemy was an ancient practice in many cultures of experimenting to try to enhance* people or objects.

Despite common knowledge that immortality potions could be deadly, alchemists continued to make them until the 1700s.

They were particularly popular during the Han dynasty, when Emperor Wu employed many alchemists who claimed to possess the highly sought after recipe.

In one famous case, alchemist Wei Boyang tested his potion on a dog, proclaiming*: “If the dog can fly after taking it then it is edible for man; if the dog dies then it is not.”

Sadly, the dog died instantly, but Wei and one of his alchemy students took the medicine anyway and also died immediately.

GLOSSARY

  • eternal: never-ending
  • bronze: a precious metal
  • noble: important and usually rich, sometimes royalty
  • Taoist: describing a religion or way of thinking originally from China; also called Daoism
  • immortality: the quality of living forever
  • toxic: poisonous
  • mythical: made up for stories
  • enhance: make better or bigger
  • proclaiming: announcing

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. When was the Han dynasty in power? What is a dynasty?
  2. Why were many immortality potions deadly?
  3. Why did the archaeologists think it was an alcoholic drink?
  4. List some items found in the tomb.
  5. What did Wei Boyang’s potion do?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Potion Procedure
Write a procedure for an alchemy (a practice trying to enhance people or things, such as a potion to live forever). Your alchemy could be to be immortal (to live forever) or just improve something (like being able to fly!). Be as creative as you like, it doesn’t have to be realistic!

Your procedure should include a list of ingredients and steps to make the potion with diagrams if required.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical & Creative Thinking

2. Extension
Would you like to be immortal? What are some of the pros and cons to having the power to live forever?

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Critical & Creative Thinking & Ethical Capabilities & English

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many pieces of punctuation as you can find in green. Discuss how these are being used, where and how often. What level of the punctuation pyramid is the journalist using in this article?

HAVE YOUR SAY: Is eternal life a good idea? Would you like to live forever?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking.
Comments will not show until approved by our editors.

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