Israel: Oldest traces of opium found in ancient tomb

Israeli researchers have found traces of opium in ceramic vessels at an ancient burial site some 3,500 years old.

Israel: Oldest traces of opium found in ancient tomb

Israeli researchers have found traces of opium in ceramic vessels at an ancient burial site some 3,500 years old. It is the earliest known evidence of human opium use, according to a statement released on Tuesday by Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The inhabitants of Canaan at that time apparently used the psychoactive drug as an "encorement for the dead," it said.

The ceramic vessels were reportedly found during excavations in Tel Jehud near Tel Aviv. There are Canaanite tombs from the 14th century BC. The vessels of opium "appeared to have been used in local funeral rites," the statement said. "This exciting find confirms historical writings and archaeological assumptions that opium and the opium trade played a central role in Middle Eastern cultures." The vessels, some made in Cyprus and some locally, were thus shaped like an opium poppy pod.

Ron Beeri of the Antiquities Authority said hundreds of tombs dating from the 18th to 13th centuries BC have been discovered at Tel Yehud. Most of the deceased are adult men and women. The vessels in the tombs were used for ceremonial meals and rites. At that time, the dead were seen as participants in these meals at the grave. It is possible that relatives would have taken opium themselves during such a ceremony in order to get into ecstasy "in an attempt to awaken the spirits of their deceased relatives". Alternatively, it is possible "that the opium placed next to the corpse was intended to help the spirit of the deceased rise from the grave in preparation for meeting loved ones in the next life."

Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University said it was "the only late Bronze Age psychoactive drug found in the Levant." In 2020, researchers found traces of cannabis on an altar in Tel Arad. However, these came from the Iron Age and were therefore several centuries "younger" than the opium from Tel Jehud. The opium apparently came from what is now Turkey and was brought to Canaan via Cyprus. "This shows the importance attached to the drug," Linares said.

Article in the journal Archaeometry

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