Israeli archaeologists uncover earliest known use of opium in the ancient world

Call it “CSI: Ancient World.” Using crime-scene forensics techniques, a multi-discipline team of scientists and archaeologists has identified the earliest evidence of opium use in the ancient world. Through residue analysis of 14th century BCE vessels excavated in a burial pit at central Israel’s Tel Yehud, the team uncovered what is likely the first physical evidence of the use of a psychoactive drug in the world.

“This is the first empirical physical evidence of the use of opium in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age,” lead researcher Dr. Vanessa Linares told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “This is the first identifiable without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt opium use in the Levant — and I would say even in the Old World.”

Over the past decade of research surrounding the chronology of the dispersion of opium, archaeobotanical studies have identified poppy — the plant from which opium is harvested — at archaeological sites dating to the Neolithic period. Additionally, there are ancient texts talking about opium use as well as ample religious iconography. But until now archaeologists hadn’t found the physical evidence to back it up.

The opium residue was found in high-quality ceramic base-ring juglets that were imported from Cyprus and others used in a burial assemblage discovered at Tel Yehud, in a salvage excavation conducted by Israel Antiquities Authority dig director Eriola Jakoel in 2012-2017.

A number of Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age were discovered and the vessels removed for further residue analysis.

Canaanite grave from the Late Bronze Age that was found in the excavation of Tel Yehud with various gravegoods and sacrificed animals. A storage jar, covered by two cups, was placed above his legs to mark his burial place. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Already in the 19th century, scholars had identified base-ring juglets as potential storage vessels for opium because they appear similar in shape to the poppy flower when it is closed and upside down.

After organic residue analysis, it is confirmed that opium residue was found in eight vessels collected at Tel Yehud, some local and some imported from Cyprus.

The residue detected by California-native Linares records, to date, the oldest proof of psychoactive drug use in the archaeological record, predating the much-publicized Tel Arad cannabis find by about 600 years.

An employee at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) holds one of the vessels that are believed to have contained opium in the 14th century BC, found at the Tel Yehud burial site and on display at the IAA offices in Jerusalem on September 20, 2022.(AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

As part of her doctoral dissertation, Linares completed the vessels’ chemical analysis under the direction of Prof. Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute. The discovered chemical markers for opium and their implications were then applied to the archaeological context of the dig, as well as the geopolitical situation of the Levant during the 14th century BCE, through the guidance of Prof. Oded Lipschits and Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology.

The IAA’s Jakoel and Dr. Ron Be’eri also contributed to the resultant research study, “Opium trade and use during the Late Bronze Age: Organic residue analysis of ceramic vessels from the burials of Tel Yehud, Israel,” which was published in July in the journal Archaeometry.

A little something to ease the pain

PhD student Vanessa Linares (Courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

Using Occam’s razor, Linares believes the origin of the opium is Asia Minor. The drug was likely shipped to Cyprus where it was redistributed into the base-ring juglets and then shipped to the Holy Land. During this era, Egypt, which also imported opium from Asia Minor, also produced a local crop in poppy fields in Thebes called opium thebaicum and thebaine.

However, due to the costs of transportation, Linares believes it is unlikely the Tel Yehud stash originated there. Instead, it likely came from modern-day Turkey.

What was likely imported from Egypt, however, was opium’s ritualistic use. According to the Archaeometry article, “During the Late Bronze Age, the religious–social structure in Canaan changed and became more heterogeneous compared to the Canaanite society of the Middle Bronze Age. After the fall of the Hyksos fortresses in the Delta region of the Nile there was an invasion by the pharaohs of Egypt into the Levant during the reign of pharaohs Amenhotep I and Thutmose III (18th dynasty). Subsequently, the southern Levant was largely subject to Egyptian political control that greatly influenced Canaanite culture and religion.

“During the 14th and 13th centuries BCE, the Egyptian and Canaanite religions merged. Egyptian-style tombs and temples were built throughout the land of Canaan and Canaanite deities also influenced the Egyptian religion.”

A 14th century BCE Cypriot juglet was laid on the deceased at Tel Yehud. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels. (Eriola Jakoel, Israel Antiquities Authority)

In Egypt, there was a practice of burial assemblages, perhaps gifts for the gods, perhaps for the use of the deceased. The opium was most likely used in a number of ways: for medicinal, cultic and ritualistic purposes, according to the article.

“In Egypt, opium was reserved for priests and warriors, for ritualistic practices and priests, and very possibly for the top echelon of society,” said Linares.

Perhaps, Linares said, the buried individual would need the opium to endure his transition to the afterlife, or maybe it was used for ritualistic purposes by the priests themselves. Or it could have been used by the mourners to ease their emotional pain over the loss of the deceased.

A 14th century BCE Cypriot juglet at Tel Yehud. The decoration of clay strips attached to the body of the juglet represent the incisions made in the opium pod and the latex (the liquid containing the opiate substance) oozing out of them. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Said the IAA’s Be’eri in a press release, “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 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 in order 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 person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life.”

Linares added, “I think you can say whatever you’d like in a cultic context and it could be true. In many ways, it the wild, wild west when it comes to cultic contexts.”

Likewise, she said she is not ruling out the possibility that it was used regularly in everyday life. “Perhaps when we excavate more, we’ll find juglets and residue of it in houses.”

These 14th century BCE Cypriot jugs and juglets were laid on the deceased at Tel Yehud. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

‘Forensics work, but 3,000 years ago’

For this opium study, the vessels were sampled in conditions as pristine as possible, from the base or near the base. The article says that to prevent contamination, nitrile gloves were worn at all times during the handling of the vessels, and pliers were routinely cleaned with dichloromethane.

Linares is one of two researchers in Israel who is expert on residue analysis. (The other is Ayala Amir, a doctoral student in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, who discovered that vanilla-flavored wine was popular in the City of David.)

Today, the pair are called out to dig sites to take samples from promising vessels even before they are unearthed.

These 14th century BCE Cypriot jugs and juglets were laid on the deceased at Tel Yehud. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels. (Shai Heksher, Israel Antiquities Authority)

She describes it as “forensics work — you have a crime scene and they block off the area. Forensics work, but 3,000 years ago.”

In the course of her MA and then PhD and post-doc in Israel 10 years ago, Linares and Amir developed a protocol of best practices for archaeologists to follow when encountering intact vessels. The idea is whenever an archaeologist is excavating and finds something that is interesting, they should be called to the site to take the sample from the site itself.

“I believe this is the reason why, for this very fact, that we were able to find the opium residue,” she said. Morphinan — an opioid alkaloid — is very volatile, she explained, and had the juglet been sitting in storage or been touched by people, the molecule would have disappeared prior to analysis.

These 14th century BCE Cypriot jugs and juglets were laid on the deceased at Tel Yehud. Remains of opium were found in several of the vessels. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“We sample the vessel right when it is coming out of the ground — even before it is taken out,” she said, which eliminates the possibility of contamination.

There is a huge backlog of interesting vessels, but Linares said that to reduce contaminating variables, she will only work on objects that are directly taken from the field.

“Hopefully we’ll soon see more ‘exotic’ things,” she said. “We just don’t know what we’ll find and we’ll start to see a lot of things we haven’t found before.”