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Opium Found at Ancient Burial Site Possible Offering to the Gods

Canaanite burial grave
The skeletal remains of a male buried with jugs that contained opium residue were found in Israel. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Opium traces found at an Israeli burial site might have been offerings to gods, according to new research. Archeologists analyzed residue left in eight out of twenty-two vessels discovered amongst the remains and dated it back to approximately the 14th century B.C.

This would have been the late Bronze Age. Israel has been the location of many exciting recent discoveries, including the Temple of Solomon.

Opium lined the clay vessels that lay in the grave of a forty to fifty-year-old male located in the region of Tel Yehud, once called Canaan. The site was unearthed in 2012 while the grave was discovered in 2017, but the findings were only published this July in the scientific journal Archaeometry.

Several of the vessels were in the shape of the inverted flower and, interestingly enough, some evidently came from Cyprus.

The opium trade in the Orient

These latest findings which came about following research conducted by Israel Antiquities Authorities ( IAA), Tel Aviv University, and The Weizmann Institute of Science, have helped historians attain a clearer perspective of the opium trade in the orient and the Cypriot base-ring juglets used to store it.

Base Ring Ware
Cypriot base-ring ware, Late Bronze Age. Hecht Museum / Wikipedia

Traders brought the opium over from Turkey via Cyprus, where craftsman then created the receptacles to house the drug. Some believe the juglets were part of ritualistic services, which makes the find significant for two reasons.

First of all, it confirms the theory that narcotics played an integral part in religious rituals. Participants might have used it to induce an ecstatic state that allowed family members to commune with departed relatives. They could also have placed it in the graves, however, to aid the deceased in their ascent to the heavens.

The second reason it is a significant find is that it traces the opium trade from Turkey to Cyprus to Israel over 3,400 years ago. Indeed, the discovery of the pottery in Israel and other locations like Syria and Lebanon proves that the island conducted a flourishing trade. Even a Greek-Byzantine era wine press depicting the Greek gods was unearthed in Israel, which proves that the Greeks frequently traded with the area. Later, an Ancient Greek from the Persian wars was found in Haifa.

Opium use throughout history

Opium, often called poppy tears, comes from unripened poppy seeds. It is a highly addictive drug that chiefly affects the brain. Throughout the centuries, however, it has been used to alleviate pain and reduce anxiety by providing a sense of euphoria. It apparently originated in Turkey, where Assyrian herbalists referred to it in their medical texts. From there, it slowly drifted eastward from Mesopotamia and Greece to India and China.

The Opium Seller W._Müller)
An artist’s view of an Ottoman opium seller. F. W. Topham (London: E. Bell, c. 1850) / Wikipedia

It was only after early explorers witnessed Native Americans’ habit of smoking pipes that the inhalation of opium became a trend. The drug later became popular in China around the 17th century, and the country began to supply it in Europe. It soon led to opium wars in China and remained a habit until the rise of communism. In North America and Europe, there were no social concerns about it whatsoever, and it was freely available without restriction.

The use of opiates became illegal, nonetheless, with the development in 1898 of the even more addictive heroin. Yet, despite the crackdown on opiates, the U.S. still remains in the grips of an opioid crisis, and, to this day, it has claimed more than 760,000 American citizens as its victims.

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