Archaeologists excavating outside of Tel Aviv, Israel have unearthed evidence of the narcotic opium in 3,400-year-old graves. The opium was discovered in eight pottery containers found as part of a series of Late Bronze Ag burials. The surprising announcement raises a whole host of questions. How did the substance get there? What was opium used for? And, why was it discovered in graves?
The graves themselves were excavated in 2012 as part of a larger project overseen by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The containers discovered interred alongside human remains were then subject to further investigation and chemical analysis. Scientists from Weizmann Institute of Science and archaeologists from Tel Aviv University collaborated on an examination and interpretation of the residue found in the jars. The results showed the presence of opium alkaloids in a number of different containers including both locally produced Canaanite jars as well as distinctively shaped base-ring jugs from Cyprus. The base-ring jugs—which, incidentally, resemble the shape of an inverted closed poppy flower—had contained the highest concentrations of opium.
Today, poppies are most widely known either as a delicious bagel topping or as the raw material for heroin or morphine. The earliest mention of the opium poppy (papaver somniferum) comes from a Sumerian clay tablet inscribed around 3,000 B.C. The tablets, which provide instructions for cultivating the plant, call it “Gil” or “happiness.” The Sumerians harvested poppy juice from the tall plants early in the morning and then stored it in clay jars. According to Mark David Merlin, the author of On the Trail of the Ancient Opium Poppy, most or even all “prehistoric people who used the opium poppy to produce drugs, probably did so by boiling, steeping, or soaking the capsules in order to extract the psychoactive ingredients.” The opium was subsequently transported in liquid form.
The Sumerians weren’t the only ones collecting psychedelic plants. Egyptian papyri contain evidence for the use of psychoactive plants from the middle of the second millennium BCE. Seeds and capsules of opium poppy were found at a neolithic site in Robenhausen, Switzerland. And opium poppy capsules were also discovered as part of the grave goods deposited in a burial cave in Cueva de los Murciélagos in Granada.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman admiral and encyclopedist, wrote in his Natural History that people in Iberia (Spain) had long consumed opium. “The juice” he wrote “possessed certain soporific qualities” that if taken too high quantities could induce death. Pliny identifies it as a suicidal technology and names one aristocrat who used it to end his chronic pain.
Despite the abundance of evidence for opium use in Crete, Cyprus, Spain, Egypt, and ancient Sumer, scholars have debated whether or not there was much opium trade in the Levant. Merlin’s study, for example, did not include it and some thought that the base-ring jugs were used for aromatic oils. In a series of publications, archaeologist Robert Merrillees argued that the small base ring jugs were deliberately fashioned in the shape of a closed poppy flower in order to market and advertise their contents. His theory met with opposition. Even when chemical analysis of a set of juglets from the British Museum revealed the presence of opium alkaloids in 2018, some argued that the samples might have been contaminated.
This new study, which analyses the residue in objects that were discovered in an archaeological context at Tel Yehud (7 miles to the south-east of Tel Aviv), offers more reliable results because the possibility of contamination is almost negligible. The fact that opium alkaloids were found in both the base ring jugs and locally manufactured jars suggests that there was a vibrant trade in opium. The study authors argue that the “base-ring jugs and juglets were used to store and transport opium from Cyprus to the Levant.” Once the opium reached the Levant, they write, it was diluted into larger storage jars of plant oil. As a stimulant with religious, medicinal, and religious or ritual use, opium would have had a high economic value. The dilution process was either intended to stretch out the opium—just as modern narcotics might be “cut” with other substances—or simply to preserve it.
Perhaps the biggest mystery, though, is the role that opium played in the burial rituals in ancient Canaan. Given opium’s association with restful sleep and death, it’s possible that the substance served a symbolic role in easing the passage of the deceased to the afterlife.
The researchers involved in the study hypothesized about more elaborate ritualistic uses. Speaking to the Guardian, Dr. Ron Be’eri, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that the opium jars were probably “placed in graves for ceremonial meals, rites and rituals performed by the living for their deceased family members.” During these ritual meals “family members or a priest on their behalf” would “attempt to summon the spirit of their dead relatives… and enter an ecstatic state by using opium.” What’s unclear is if the opium functioned to mute the pain of the mourners, to summon the relative who had died, or to invoke the spirits of other relatives as a source of support to the recently deceased. Ultimately, said Be’eri, we are in the realm of speculation.