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September 20, 2022 10:04 am

Israeli Researchers Find Evidence of Earliest Use of Opium in Ceramic Vessels Excavated at Ancient Burial Site

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Ancient jugs made in Cyprus containing traces of opium discovered by Israeli archeologists. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

Israeli archeological researchers have found evidence of the earliest use of opium in ceramic vessels excavated from a burial site by the ancient Canaanites near the outskirts of Tel Aviv on the coastal plain.

The researchers discovered traces of opium in pottery vessels dating back to the 14th century BCE, which they believe were used in burial rituals by the ancient Canaanites or as an offering for the dead in the afterlife. The vessels, shaped like a closed and inverted poppy flower, were initially found during an excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority at Tel Yehud back in 2012, which led to the discovery of a number of Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age.

In the latest joint study conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, researchers analyzed organic residue in eight of the vessels which revealed traces of opium, some produced locally and some made in Cyprus, according to the findings published in July in the journal Archaeometry.

The researchers believe that the findings may contribute to the long-standing debate among scholars about the exact human use of chemicals in the ancient near east and offer some insight into the burial rituals of the ancient world. According to the study, the opium was most likely used in a number of ways: for medicinal, cultic and ritualistic purposes.

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“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,” said Ron Be’eri of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “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.”

“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,” Be’eri added.

Vanessa Linares at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archeology noted that the finding also sheds light on opium trade in the ancient world.

“One must remember that opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor – that is, in the territory of current-day Turkey – whereas the pottery in which we identified the opium were made in Cyprus,” said Linares. “In other words, the opium was brought to Yehud from Turkey, through Cyprus; this of course indicates the importance that was attributed to the drug.”


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