Opium usage dates back to ancient Israel, new study finds

While the world often historically associates the opium trade with the far east, Israeli researchers have found that the highly-potent drug played a major role in biblical times.

 Vessels intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife. These Cypriot jugs and juglets were laid on the deceased. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels. (photo credit: Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Vessels intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife. These Cypriot jugs and juglets were laid on the deceased. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels.
(photo credit: Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Residues of opium have been found in pottery vessels excavated at Tel Yehud in modern-day central Israel that date back to the 14th century BCE.

According to researchers at the Antiquities Authority (IAA), Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the Canaanites used the psychoactive drug as an offering for the dead, as the vessels were found in Canaanite graves.

The findings were the earliest known evidence of the use of the hallucinogenic drug opium – and psychoactive drugs in general – in the world.

What did the researchers look for? 

The ceramic vessels containing the residues were uncovered in an excavation conducted by Eriola Jakoel on behalf of the IAA.

 Cypriot Base Ring 1 ware juglet. This juglet was imported from Cyprus. Handmade and fired in a very high temperature, it served — like a modern perfume bottle — to advertise and market its content.  (credit: CLARA AMIT/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY) Cypriot Base Ring 1 ware juglet. This juglet was imported from Cyprus. Handmade and fired in a very high temperature, it served — like a modern perfume bottle — to advertise and market its content. (credit: CLARA AMIT/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

This exciting discovery confirms historical writings and archaeological hypotheses, according to which opium and its trade played a central role in the cultures of the Near East, the researchers wrote.

The research was conducted as part of Vanessa Linares’s doctoral thesis, under the guidance of Prof. Oded Lipschits and Prof. Yuval Gadot of TAU’s archaeology department and Prof. Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute, in collaboration with Jakoel and Dr. Ron Be’eri of the IAA. The study was published in the journal Archaeometry under the title “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 site before homes could be built there. 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 into the afterlife. Among the pottery, a large group of vessels made in Cyprus and referred to in the study as “base-ring juglets” stood out.

Because the vessels are similar in shape to the poppy flower when it is closed and upside down, the hypothesis arose already in the 19th century that 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.

Did males or females smoke more opium back in the day? 

Most of the bodies buried were those of adults of both sexes. The pottery vessels that had been placed within the graves were used for ceremonial meals, rites and 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 regarded as 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 placed next to the body was meant to help the person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life, the archaeologists suggested.

“This is the only psychoactive drug that has been found in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age,” Linares said. In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad, but this dated back to the Iron Age, hundreds of years after 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, the authors wrote, adding that 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 used the drug for the ceremony.

“Moreover, the discovery sheds light on the opium trade in general,” Linares said. “One must remember that opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor – that is, in the territory of current-day Turkey – while the pottery in which we identified the opium were 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.”

Be’eri said: “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. 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.”

“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.”

Dr. Ron Be’eri

According to IAA director Eli Eskosido, “new scientific capabilities have opened a window for us to fascinating information and have provided us with answers to questions that we never would have dreamed of finding in the past. One can only imagine what other information we will be able to extract from the underground discoveries that will emerge in the future.”