Cinnabar, the Ancient Pigment of Mercury

The History of Mercury Mineral Use

Red Lady Tomb at Palenque

Dennis Jarvis / CC / Flickr

Cinnabar, or mercury sulphide (HgS), ​is a highly toxic, naturally occurring form of the mercury mineral, which was used in the ancient past for producing a bright orange (vermillion) pigment on ceramics, murals, tattoos, and in religious ceremonies.

Cinnabar's Earliest Use

The primary prehistoric use of the mineral was grinding it to create vermillion, and its earliest known use for this purpose is at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey (7000-8000 BC), where wall paintings included cinnabar's vermillion.

Recent investigations in the Iberian peninsula at the Casa Montero flint mine, and burials at La Pijotilla and Montelirio suggest the use of cinnabar as a pigment beginning approximately 5300 BC. Lead isotope analysis identified the provenance of these cinnabar pigments as coming from the Almaden district deposits.

In China, the earliest known use of cinnabar is the Yangshao culture (~4000-3500 BC). At several sites, cinnabar covered the walls and floors in buildings used for ritual ceremonies. Cinnabar was among a range of minerals used to paint Yangshao ceramics, and, at Taosi village, cinnabar was sprinkled into elite burials.

Vinca Culture (Serbia)

The Neolithic Vinca culture (4800-3500 BC), located in the Balkans and including the Serbian sites of Plocnik, Belo Brdo, and Bubanj, among others, were early users of cinnabar, likely mined from the Suplja Stena mine on Mount Avala, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Vinca. Cinnabar occurs in this mine in quartz veins; Neolithic quarrying activities are attested here by the presence of stone tools and ceramic vessels near ancient mine shafts.

Micro-XRF studies reported in 2012 (Gajic-Kvašcev et al.) revealed that paint on ceramic vessels and figurines from the Plocnik site contained a mixture of minerals, including high purity cinnabar. A red powder filling a ceramic vessel discovered at Plocnik in 1927 was also found to include a high percentage of cinnabar, likely but not definitively mined from Suplja Stena.

Huacavelica (Peru)

Huancavelica is the name of the largest mercury source in the Americas, located on the eastern slope of the Cordillera Occidental mountains of central Peru. Mercury deposits here are the result of Cenozoic magma intrusions into sedimentary rock. Vermillion was used to paint ceramics, figurines, and murals and to decorate elite status burials in Peru in a range of cultures including Chavín culture (400-200 BC), Moche, Sican, and the Inca empire. At least two segments of the Inca Road lead to Huacavelica.

Scholars (Cooke et al.) report that mercury accumulations in nearby lake sediments began rising about 1400 BC, probably the result of the dust from cinnabar mining. The main historic and prehistoric mine at Huancavelica is the Santa Barbára mine, nicknamed the "mina de la muerte" (mine of death), and it was both the single largest supplier of mercury to the colonial silver mines and the major source of pollution in the Andes even today. Known to have been exploited by the Andean empires, large-scale mercury mining began here during the colonial period after the introduction of mercury amalgamation associated with the extraction of silver from low-grade ores.

Amalgamation of poor quality silver ores using cinnabar was begun in Mexico by Bartolomé de Medina in 1554. This process involved smelting the ore in grass-fired, clay-lined retorts until vaporization yielded gaseous mercury. Some of the gas was trapped in a crude condenser, and cooled, yielding liquid mercury. Polluting emissions from this process included both the dust from the original mining and the gasses released into the atmosphere during smelting.

Theophrastus and Cinnabar

Classical Greek and Roman mentions of cinnabar include that of Theophrastus of Eresus (371-286 BC), a student of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Theophrastus wrote the earliest surviving scientific book on minerals, "De Lapidibus", in which he described an extraction method to get quicksilver from cinnabar. Later references to the quicksilver process appear in Vitruvius (1st century BC) and Pliny the Elder (1st century AD).

Roman Cinnabar

Cinnabar was the most expensive pigment used by the Romans for extensive wall paintings on public and private buildings (~100 BC-300 AD). A recent study on cinnabar samples taken from several villas in Italy and Spain were identified using lead isotope concentrations, and compared with source material in Slovenia (the Idria mine), Tuscany (Monte Amiata, Grosseto), Spain (Almaden) and as a control, from China. In some cases, such as at Pompeii, the cinnabar seems to have come from a specific local source, but in others, the cinnabar used in the murals was blended from several different regions.

Poisonous Medications

One use of cinnabar not attested in archaeological evidence to date, but which may have been the case prehistorically is as traditional medication or ritual ingestion. Cinnabar has been used for at least 2,000 years as part of Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicines. Although it may have some beneficial effect on some illnesses, human ingestion of mercury is now known to produce toxic damage to kidney, brain, liver, the reproductive systems, and other organs.

Cinnabar is still used in at least 46 traditional Chinese patent medicines today, making up between 11-13% of Zhu-Sha-An-Shen-Wan, a popular over-the-counter traditional medicine for insomnia, anxiety, and depression. That is about 110,000 times higher than allowable cinnabar dose levels according to the European Drug and Food Standards: in a study on rats, Shi et al. found that ingestion of this level of cinnabar does create physical damage.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Cinnabar, the Ancient Pigment of Mercury." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Cinnabar, the Ancient Pigment of Mercury. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Cinnabar, the Ancient Pigment of Mercury." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).