A new study by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and The Weizmann Institute of Science has revealed that the earliest known evidence of the use of the hallucinogenic drug opium and psychoactive drugs in general in the world is located in the Holy Land.
Opium residue was found in ceramic vessels discovered at Tel Yehud, in an excavation conducted by Eriola Jakoel on behalf of the IAA. The vessels containing the opium molecules date back to the 14th century BCE and were found in Canaanite graves, having probably been used in burial rituals. This exciting discovery confirms historical writings and archeological hypotheses that opium and its trade played a central role in the cultures of the Near East.
The research was conducted as part of Vanessa Linares’s doctoral thesis, under the guidance of Prof. Oded Lipschits and Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archeology and Prof. Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute, in collaboration with the IAA’s Eriola Jakoel and Dr. Ron Be’eri. The study was published in the journal Archaeometry (Opium trade and use during the Late Bronze Age: Organic residue analysis of ceramic vessels from the burials of Tel Yehud, Israel).
In 2012, the IAA conducted a salvage excavation at the Tel Yehud site, ahead of the construction of residential housing there. Several Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age were found in the excavation, and next to them were burial offerings – vessels intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife. The pottery included a large group of vessels that were made in Cyprus and referred to in the study as “Base-Ring juglets.”
The researchers noted that these vessels are similar in shape to the poppy flower when it is closed and held upside down, and recalled the hypothesis that dates back to the 19th century suggesting 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 by humans.
Dr. Ron Be’eri of the IAA says, “hundreds of Canaanite graves from the 18th to the 13th centuries BCE have been unearthed in the excavations conducted at Tel Yehud to date. Most of the bodies that are buried there were of adults of both sexes. The pottery vessels had been placed within the graves for use in ceremonial meals, and other rituals performed by the living for their deceased family members. The dead were honored 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 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 dead person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life.”
Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University explains: “This is the only psychoactive drug from the Late Bronze Age that has been found in the Levant. In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad, but this dated back to the Iron Age, hundreds of years later than 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. Of course, we do not know what opium’s role was in the ceremony – whether the Canaanites in Yehud believed that the dead would need opium in the afterlife, or whether it was the priests who consumed the drug for the ceremony.
“But the discovery sheds light on the opium trade in general. Opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor––today’s Turkey––whereas the pottery in which we identified the opium was made in Cyprus. 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.”
Dr. Ron Be’eri of the IAA adds, “Until now, no written sources have been discovered that describe the exact use of narcotics in burial ceremonies, so we can only speculate on what was done with the 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.”