Ancient Tombs Reveal Opium Use 2,300 Years Ago

Ceramic vessels discovered in ancient tombs in Israel have revealed the world’s earliest evidence of opium use dating back more than 2,300 years.

The images show the opium paraphernalia from the Late Bronze Age both while it was being dug up during the excavation and after it had been cleaned.

Experts say in a study that the drug was possibly intended as an offering to the dead during burial rituals or ingested by priests.

Photo shows artefacts unearthed during the excavations at the Tel Yehud site in Israel, undated photo.
(Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority/Newsflash)

Newsflash obtained a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority saying that the joint study, carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, has revealed “the earliest known evidence of the use of the hallucinogenic drug opium, and psychoactive drugs in general, in the world.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority said that the opium residue was found in the pottery vessels which were excavated at Tel Yehud, during an excavation run by Eriola Jakoel on behalf of the Authority.

They said the artefacts date back to the 14th century BC.

The Authority added: “According to the researchers, the Canaanites used the psychoactive drug as an offering for the dead.” Although it remains unclear how exactly it was used, whether it was simply placed in the pottery or ingested by the living, either relatives or priests.

The experts said that the artefacts, first dug up in 2012, had been found in Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age, apparently having been used in local burial rituals, intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife.

They added: “This exciting discovery confirms historical writings and archeological hypotheses according to which opium and its trade played a central role in the cultures of the Near East.”

Photo shows an artefact unearthed during the excavations at the Tel Yehud site in Israel, undated photo.
(Ariola Yakoel, Israel Antiquities Authority/Newsflash)

The research was conducted as part of Vanessa Linares’s doctoral thesis, under the guidance of Professor Oded Lipschits and Professor Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology, and Prof. Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute, in collaboration with Eriola Jakoel and Dr Ron Be’eri of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The study has been published in the academic journal Archaeometry.

The experts said: “Among the pottery, a large group of vessels made in Cyprus and referred to in the study as ‘Base-Ring juglets’, stood out.

“Because the vessels are similar in shape to the poppy flower when it is closed and upside down, the hypothesis arose already in the 19th century that they were used as ritual vessels for the drug. Now, an organic residue analysis has revealed opium residue in eight vessels, some local and some made in Cyprus.

“This is the first time that opium has been found in pottery in general, and in Base-Ring vessels in particular. It is also the earliest known evidence of the use of hallucinogens in the world.”

Dr Ron Be’eri said: “In the excavations conducted at Tel Yehud to date, hundreds of Canaanite graves from the 18th to the 13th centuries BC have been unearthed. Most of the bodies buried were those of adults, of both sexes.

Photo shows artefacts unearthed during the excavations at the Tel Yehud site in Israel, undated photo.
(Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority/Newsflash)

“The pottery vessels had been placed within the graves were used for ceremonial meals, rites and rituals performed by the living for their deceased family members. The dead were honoured with foods and drinks that were either placed in the vessels, or consumed during a feast that took place over the grave, at which the deceased was considered a participant.

“It may be that during these ceremonies, conducted by family members or by a priest on their behalf, participants attempted to raise the spirits of their dead relatives in order to express a request, and would enter an ecstatic state by using opium.

“Alternatively, it is possible that the opium, which was placed next to the body, was intended to help the person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life”.

And Vanessa Linares explained: “This is the only psychoactive drug that has been found in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age. In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad, but this dated back the Iron Age, hundreds of years after the opium in Tel Yehud.

“Because the opium was found at a burial site, it offers us a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the ancient world.”

While Dr Ron Be’eri added: “Until now, no written sources have been discovered that describe the exact use of narcotics in burial ceremonies, so we can only speculate what was done with opium.

“From documents that were discovered in the Ancient Near East, it appears that the Canaanites attached great importance to ‘satisfying the needs of the dead’ through ritual ceremonies performed for them by the living, and believed that in return, the spirits would ensure the health and safety of their living relatives.”

Photo shows an artefact unearthed during the excavations at the Tel Yehud site in Israel, undated photo.
(Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority/Newsflash)

According to Eli Eskosido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority: “New scientific capabilities have opened a window for us to fascinating information and have provided us with answers to questions that we never would have dreamed of finding in the past.

“One can only imagine what other information we will be able to extract from the underground discoveries that will emerge in the future.”

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Story By: Joseph GolderSub-EditorJoseph Golder, Agency: Newsflash

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