The remains of the opium were found in pottery excavated at Tel Yehud, in an excavation conducted by Ariola Yakoel on behalf of the Antiquities Authority. The pots that contained the opium date to the 14th century BC, and they were found in the graves of Canaanites and were apparently used as part of the local cult of the dead
A new study by the Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science has revealed the earliest evidence known in the world of the use of the hallucinogenic drug "opium" and psychoactive drugs in general. The remains of the opium were found in pottery excavated at Tel Yehud, in an excavation conducted by Ariola Yakoel on behalf of the Antiquities Authority. The pots that contained the opium date to the 14th century BC, and they were found in the graves of Canaanites and were apparently used as part of the local cult of the dead. The 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.
The research was conducted as part of Vanessa Linares' doctoral thesis under the supervision of Prof. Oded Lifshitz and Prof. Yuval Gadot from the Department of Archeology at Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Roni Newman from the Weizmann Institute of Science in collaboration with Ariola Yekael and Dr. Ron Barry from the Antiquities Authority. The study was published in the journal Archaeometry.
In 2017, the Antiquities Authority conducted a salvage excavation at the Tel Yehud site, prior to the construction of residences there. In the excavation, a number of Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age were found, and next to them were burial offerings, vessels intended to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Among the pottery, a large group of vessels made in Cyprus and referred to in the study as "ring base vessels" stood out.
Since the vessels are similar in shape to a poppy flower when closed and upside down, already in the 19th century the hypothesis arose that they were used as ritual vessels for this drug. Now, an organic residue analysis has revealed opium residues in eight pottery vessels, some of which are local pottery and some of which were made in Cyprus - the first time that opium has been found in pottery in general, in pottery from the ring base family in particular, and the earliest evidence of the use of hallucinogens in the Middle East .
The Last Supper
The research is the result of a joint initiative by Ariola Yekuel and Dr. Ron Barry from the Antiquities Authority and Dr. Vanessa Linaris from Tel Aviv University. Ron Barry points out: "In the excavations conducted so far at Tel Yehud, hundreds of Canaanite graves have been excavated from the 18th to the 13th centuries BC. The buried were mostly adults of both sexes, they were honored with food and drinks that were placed for them in pottery inside the grave, served to them after the burial in the form of offerings and sacrifices, or eaten in their honor at a feast of the relatives above the grave, a feast in which the deceased is considered a participant.
It is possible that in these ceremonies the family members would raise the spirits of their dead relatives from the grave to make a request, and that the participants in the magic ceremony - whether conducted by the family members or by a priest on their behalf - would enter an ecstatic state through the use of opium. Alternatively, it is possible that the opium, which was placed next to the buried, was intended to 'help the spirit of the deceased rise from the grave' in preparation for the long-awaited meeting with his relatives in the next life."
Pechiots and pechiots from the ring base family that were placed on the dead body. Tel Aviv University tests found traces of opium in these vessels. Photo: Assaf Peretz, Antiquities Authority
Vanessa Linares from Tel Aviv University explains: "This is the only psychoactive drug found in the Levant during the Late Bronze Age. In 2020, researchers discovered remains of cannabis on an altar in Tel Arad - but this is already in the Iron Age, hundreds of years after the opium in Tel Yehud. Since the opium is found in a burial site, it gives us a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the ancient world. Of course, we do not know what the role of opium was in the ceremony - whether the Canaanites in Judah believed that the dead would need opium in the afterlife, or whether it was the priests who consumed the drug for the purposes of the ceremony. In addition, the discovery sheds light on the trade in opium in general. It should be remembered that opium is produced from poppy flowers, which grew in Asia Minor - that is, in the territory of today's Turkey - and that the pottery in which we identified the opium was produced in Cyprus. In other words, the opium was brought to the Jew from Turkey, via Cyprus, and this of course indicates the importance they attributed to the drug."
Dr. Ron Barry adds: "So far, 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 seems 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 'ghosts' took care of the health and safety of their living relatives."
According to Eli Escozido, director of the Antiquities Authority, "the new capabilities of science open a window to fascinating information for us, and provide us with answers to questions we never dreamed of finding before. One can only imagine what other information we will be able to extract from the discoveries that emerge from the ground in the future."
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