Archeologists find 3,300-year-old opium remains in central Israel

Remains of opium dating back 3,300 years ago have been found in central Israel in an unusual discovery, archaeologists said on Tuesday.

The psychoactive drug was found in earthenware unearthed during an archaeological dig in Yehud. According to researchers, this points to the oldest evidence of psychoactive drug use in modern-day Israel, and perhaps around the world.

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ונסה לינארס, החוג לארכיאולוגיה, אוניברסיטת תל אביבונסה לינארס, החוג לארכיאולוגיה, אוניברסיטת תל אביב

Venessa Linars at the gravesite

(Photo: Tel Aviv University)

Research into the discovery is being conducted by Venessa Linars, Prof. Oded Lipshitz and Prof. Yuval Gadot from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology. Ariola Yekuel and Dr. Ron Beeri of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Prof. Roni Noiman of the Weizmann Institute of Science also contributed to the research, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archaemetry.

The excavation also uncovered several Canaanite tombs from the late Bronze Age.

Tools and earthenware were found next to the tombs, which were placed there to help the soul in the afterlife. Among the pottery were pots made in Cyprus from the 14th century BC. found, which were probably used in local death rituals.

Tel Aviv University and the IAA said the discovery confirmed that the opium trade played a large role in Levantine cultures of the time.

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פכיות ופכים ממשפחת בסיס הטבעת שהונחו על גופת המת.  בדיקות אונ' ת"א מצאו שרידי אופיום בכלים אלה.פכיות ופכים ממשפחת בסיס הטבעת שהונחו על גופת המת.  בדיקות אונ' ת"א מצאו שרידי אופיום בכלים אלה.

Clay pots found in the dig

(Photo: Asad Peretz, Antiquities Authority)

Similar earthenware was found in the 19th century, shaped similarly to a closed poppy flower used to make opium. The researchers then assessed that the earthenware was used as a container for the medicine.

A new technology that allows analysis of organic residues found opium residues in eight of the clay pots found at Yehud. This is the first time traces of opium have been found in clay pots and is the earliest documented evidence of hallucinogenic drugs being used in the Middle East

dr Ron Beeri of the IAA said: “It could be the case that family members would attempt to channel the spirits of the dead through a magical ceremony conducted by a priest using opium. The opium could also have been placed next to the tomb to help the spirit rise from the tomb into the afterlife.”

Linars explained the significance of the find. “This is the only psychoactive drug that dates back to the late Bronze Age in the Levant. Remains of marijuana were also found in Israel in 2020, but are thought to date from the Iron Age hundreds of years later.”

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Canaanite tomb found in excavation

(Photo: Asad Peretz, Antiquities Authority)

She added: “Because the opium was found at a burial site, it gives us a rare glimpse into ancient burial rites. We do not know what role opium played in those days and whether it was given to the dead or used in ceremonies by local priests.

“The find also helps us to understand the opium trade in the Levant at this time. Opium is made from poppies that grow in what is now Turkey, and the earthenware in which we found the opium is from Cyprus. The opium was most likely imported from Turkey via Cyprus, which also indicates the importance of the drug in the region at the time.”

dr Beeri said the exact use of opium during the late Bronze Age still remains a mystery. “No written record has yet been found that describes the use of narcotics in funeral rites, and we can only estimate how the opium was used.”

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ד"ר רון באריד"ר רון בארי

dr Ron Beeri

(Photo: Yaniv Berman, Antiquities Authority)

He also added: “Documents found in the Levant indicate that the Canaanite people attached importance to burial rites and believed that the dead spirits would care for their living relatives if they were performed respectfully.”

Israel Antiquities Authority head Eli Escozido said the rare find offered answers to age-old questions. “New technologies give us access to great knowledge and provide answers to questions we never thought would be answered. You can only imagine what information we might find with future digs.”

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