Opium traces discovered in Israel vessels used in burial rituals

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Opium traces have been discovered in Israel in vessels used in burial rituals by the ancient Canaanites, providing one of the world’s earliest evidences of use of the drug.

Discovered in a 2012 excavation in Tel Yehud in central Israel, the Late Bronze Age vessels, shaped like upside-down poppy flowers, were found at Canaanite graves, where they were likely used in burial ceremonies and for offerings for the dead in the afterlife, researchers said on Tuesday (September 20).

A new joint study by the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, analysed organic residue in eight of the vessels and found that it was opium, some of which was produced locally and some in Cyprus.

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An Israel Antiquities Authority employee holds a vessel that may have contained opium in the 14th century B.C.

An Israel Antiquities Authority employee holds a vessel that may have contained opium in the 14th century B.C. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The findings date back to the 14th century BC, the researchers said in their study, published in the Archaeometry journal.

Precisely how opium was used by the Canaanites in their burial rituals, remains unknown, the researchers said.

The researchers think the participants attempted to raise the spirits of their dead relatives in order to express a request, and would enter an ecstatic state by using opium.

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“Inside vessels of this type we found traces of opium and it is possible that this vessel was intended to pour liquid such as distilled opium mixed with liquid into the cup and this liquid would have been drunk by the priest above the grave, and by the process of drinking he would enter an ecstatic state,” said Ron Beeri of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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“These tools were found in huge quantities in excavations from the area of Greece and Italy to Egypt and in particular in the area of southern Levant and Egypt. The significance is that if these vessels really contained opium, it indicates how popular this product was and how much it was consumed during this period,” Beeri added.

In 2020, researchers confirmed 8th century BC traces of cannabis had been found on an altar in a 3000-year-old ancient Israelite shrine in the Negev Desert.

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