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Archaeologists find 3,300-year-old traces of opium in central Israel

AJN Agency.- In an unusual discovery, remains of opium from 3,300 years ago have been found in central Israel, archeology officials reported on Tuesday.

The psychoactive drug was found in earthenware excavated during an archaeological dig at Yehud. According to the researchers, this is the oldest evidence of psychoactive drug use in Israel today, and perhaps in the world.

Investigation of the discovery is led by Venessa Linars, Professor Oded Lipshitz and Professor Yuval Gadot from Tel Aviv University’s archeology department. Ariola Yekuel and Dr. Ron Beeri, from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and Professor Roni Noiman, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, also contributed to the research, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archaeometry.

The excavation also uncovered several Canaanite tombs from the late Bronze Age.

Alongside the tombs were found tools and clay objects, placed there to help the soul in the afterlife. Among the earthenware, vessels made in Cyprus dating back to the 14th century BC were found, probably used in local death rituals.

Tel Aviv University and the IAA said the discovery confirms that the opium trade played an important role in Levantine cultures at the time.

In the 19th century, a similar pottery was found, with a shape similar to that of a closed poppy flower, with which opium is made. The researchers then evaluated that the pottery was used as a container for the drug.

The new technology, which allows analysis of organic residues, found traces of opium in eight of the clay pots found in Yehud. This is the first time traces of opium have been found in clay pots, and it is the first recorded evidence that hallucinogenic drugs were used in the Middle East.

Dr Ron Beeri of the IAA said: “It could be the case that family members sought to channel the spirit of the dead through a magical ceremony performed by a priest, and used opium to do so. The opium could also have been placed next to the grave to help the spirit to leave it for the afterlife.

Linars explained the importance of the finding. “This is the only psychoactive drug located in the Levant that dates back to the end of the Bronze Age. Traces of marijuana were also found in Israel in 2020, but are believed to be from the Iron Age, hundreds of years later.

He added: “As the opium was found in a burial site, it gives us a rare insight into the burial rites of the ancient world. We are not sure what role opium played at the time, and whether it was given to the dead or used by local priests for ceremonies.”

“The find also helps us understand the opium trade in the Levant during that time. Opium is made from poppy flowers, which grow in present-day Turkey, and the pottery where we find the opium came from Cyprus. Most likely, the opium was imported from Turkey via Cyprus, which also indicates the importance of the drug in the region at the time.”

Dr. Beeri said that the exact use of opium during the late Bronze Age remains a mystery. “So far no written records have been found describing the use of narcotic substances in funeral rituals, and we can only estimate how opium was used.”

He also added: “From the documents found in the Levant, it seems that the Canaanites attached importance to funeral rites and believed that, if done with respect, the spirits of the dead would take care of their living relatives.”

Israel Antiquities Authority chief Eli Escozido said the rare find provides answers to age-old questions. “New technologies allow us to access great knowledge, and provide answers to questions that we never imagined could be answered. You can only imagine what information we might find in future excavations.”

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