A biblical-era Israeli shrine shows signs of the earliest ritual use of marijuana

Chemical analyses of residue from an altar reveal a cannabis–animal dung mixture

Arad shrine

A section of the more than 2,700-year-old shrine at Arad, rebuilt from original archaeological finds for display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, includes two altars, one with frankincense residue (left) and one with cannabis residue (right).

Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman

A limestone altar from an Iron Age shrine in Israel contains remnants of the world’s earliest known instance of burning cannabis plants in a ritual ceremony, a new study finds.

This altar, along with a second altar on which frankincense was burned, stood at the entrance to a room where religious rites were presumably held inside a fortress of the biblical kingdom of Judah. Previous analyses of recovered pottery and documented historical events at the site indicate that the shrine was used from roughly 760 B.C. to 715 B.C.

Excavations at Israel’s Tel Arad site in the 1960s uncovered the shrine amid the ruins of two fortress cities, one built atop the other, that date from the ninth century B.C. to the early sixth century B.C. Arad, about 45 kilometers west of the Dead Sea, guarded Judah’s southern border.

Chemical analyses of dark material on the two altars’ upper surfaces conducted in the late 1960s proved inconclusive. Using modern laboratory devices, a team led by archaeologist Eran Arie of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and bioarchaeologist Dvory Namdar of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center in Bet-Dagan analyzed chemical components of residues on each altar. 

Cannabis on the smaller of the two altars had been mixed with animal dung so it could be burned at a low temperature, likely allowing ritual specialists to inhale the plant’s mind-altering fumes, the researchers report online May 29 in Tel Aviv, a journal published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology. This cannabis sample contained enough of the plant’s psychoactive compound THC to have induced an altered state of consciousness by breathing in its fumes.

Frankincense, a form of dried tree resin, was placed on the larger altar and mixed with animal fats that enabled burning at temperatures high enough to release the resin’s fragrance, the researchers say.

Biblical and historical texts indicate that frankincense and another fragrant tree resin, myrrh, reached the Iron Age Middle East and surrounding regions via trade from southern Arabia.

“But cannabis is completely new for understanding incense burning in this region, and in Judah in particular,” Arie says. Earlier evidence had pointed to the use of other mind-bending substances, such as opium, during religious rituals in various parts of the ancient Middle East and southwest Asia.

Arie suspects cannabis plants were cultivated far from Israel, in what’s now China or southeastern Russia. Knowledge of cannabis, or marijuana, probably spread from eastern and central Asia to Europe along early Silk Road trade routes, says archaeobotanist Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Mourners at a cemetery in western China inhaled cannabis fumes around 2,500 years ago (SN: 6/12/19).

It’s unclear how Middle Easterners learned about and acquired potent forms of cannabis, Spengler says. Discoveries at the Arad shrine, he says, “further complicate the early story of cannabis.”

Many Iron Age altars at Middle Eastern sites resemble the two at Tel Arad, says archaeologist Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The new report provides the first direct evidence that incense, sometimes including cannabis, was burned on at least some of those altars, he suggests. “It’s interesting to think of the priests officiating at these altars getting ‘high,’” Gibson muses.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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