Israeli researchers find 3,500-year-old-pottery traces with opium

No, they didn't intent to get high. It was a cultural practice.
Nergis Firtina
Old clay jug with large cracks
Old clay jug with large cracks


A new discovery made in Israel reveals that the Canaanite people used opium in their cultural practices.

Israeli archaeologists have found nearly 3,500-year-old pottery containing traces of opium, and the discovery shows that it had been used in ancient burial rituals, says the study, which was published in Archeometry on July 2.

“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. “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.”

Opium traces were discovered in pottery vessels at the complex in Yehud, located 7 miles (11 km) southeast of Tel Aviv.

The joint investigation began by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Tel Aviv University in 2012.

Israeli researchers find 3,500-year-old-pottery traces with opium
The potteries

Opium may have come from Turkey

As per the study, the opium-containing vessels were discovered in Canaanite graves in the 14th century BC, having apparently been used in local burial rituals. This exciting discovery backs up historical writings and archeological hypotheses that opium and its trade were important in Near Eastern cultures.

As researchers suggested, the opium was grown in modern-day Turkey and brought to Yehud via Cyprus. According to the report, the receptacles were manufactured in Cyprus. They were described as Base-Ring juglets and were part of a group of pottery vessels thought to have been given to the dead to accompany them into the afterlife.

"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," said Dr. Ron Beeri of the IAA.

"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."

"Satisfying the needs of the dead"

Dr. Ron Be’eri of the Antiquities Authority continued to elucidate the findings:

“Until now, no written sources have been discovered that describe the exact use of narcotics in burial ceremonies, so we can only speculate what was done with opium. From documents that were discovered in the Ancient Near East.

"It appears that the Canaanites attached great importance to ‘satisfying the needs of the dead’ through ritual ceremonies performed for them by the living, and believed that in return, the spirits would ensure the health and safety of their living relatives.”


Organic residue analysis was conducted on various vessels from burials at Tel Yehud, Israel. The analyses led to new reliable evidence for the presence of opioid alkaloids and their decomposition products. This research revitalizes a decades-old discussion on the presence and function of the opium trade across a cultural region of utmost significance in the Ancient Near East and the use and role of Base-Ring juglets during the Late Bronze Age IIA (14th century bce). Furthermore, it was found that opium storage was not limited to Base-Ring juglets. Opium was possibly diluted into storage jars and juglets, signifying the importance of opium utilization at a larger scale during this period.

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