New study identifies world’s earliest evidence of opium use

The study sheds light on how the hallucinogenic drug was used in Late Bronze Age burial customs.

Traces of opium residue discovered in pottery vessels from a Late Bronze Age burial site in Israel have provided the earliest known evidence of opium use – and psychoactive drug use in general – in the world.

A Base-Ring juglet recovered from a grave at Tel Yehud, Israel. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) carried out excavations at the site of Tel Yehud, in the district of Yehud-Monosson, reveaing a number of Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1300 BC) Canaanite graves that contained funerary offerings of pottery vessels.

According to Dr Ron Be’eri of the IAA: ‘the 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.’

A large group of ‘Base-Ring’ juglets made in Cyprus were found among the vessels. Since the 19th century, it has been hypothesised that Base-Ring juglets were used for storing opium, as their shape appears to resemble a closed and inverted poppy flower.

According to a study, recently published in the journal Archaeometry, a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute, in collaboration with the IAA, conducted organic residue analysis on 22 ceramic vessels of various types, including locally made storage jars and the imported Cypriot Base-Ring juglets, and found that eight of the vessels contained opium residue.

Their results offer the earliest evidence of opium use, and of psychoactive substance use in general.

Ceramic vessels excavated from Canaanite graves at Tel Yehud, Israel. Photo: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University said: ‘Of course, we do not know what the 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 consumed the drug for the purposes of the ceremony.’

Linares added that the discovery nevertheless ‘offers us a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the ancient world.’

The vessels belonged to Late Bronze Age Canaanite graves, and were deposited as burial offerings. Photo: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

The analysis has also shed new light on opium trade in the Late Bronze Age.

Produced from poppies grown in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), the opium would have been transported to Cyprus, before then being exported to Tel Yehud in the Base-Ring juglets.

Their results also showed that the locally-made wares contained a lower concentration of opium alkaloids, indicating that the drug may have been transferred from the Base-Ring juglets and then diluted in a secondary vessel for more immediate use.