Archaeologists Discover Evidence of Earliest Known Opium Use

At a burial site in Israel, pottery from the 14th century B.C.E. contained traces of the drug

Some of the 14th-century B.C.E. vessels found at the Tel Yehud burial site
Some of the 14th-century B.C.E. vessels found at the Tel Yehud burial site Photo by Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty Images

Researchers in Israel have discovered traces of opium in ceramic artifacts from the 14th century B.C.E.—the earliest known evidence of the drug in the ancient world.

The pottery vessels, shaped like inverted poppy flowers, were originally discovered during a 2012 excavation in Tel Yehud, an Israeli town some seven miles from Tel Aviv. The poppy flower plant produces opium, which is what led the researchers to test the late Bronze Age artifacts for drug residue.

Now, their findings are the subject of a new study published in the journal Archaeometry. Researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University were able to identify traces of the hallucinogenic drug in eight of the vessels; some of them were imported from Cyrpus, while others were local.

The vessels were discovered in a Canaanite burial site, and archaeologists theorize that the opium could have been connected with some sort of end-of-life ritual.

“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,” says Ron Be’eriof of the Israel Antiquities Authority in a statement announcing the discovery.

Or maybe, he adds, the opium could have been “intended to help the person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life.”

“This is the first empirical physical evidence of the use of opium in the Levant in the late Bronze Age,” Vanessa Linares, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and lead author of the study, tells the Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan. “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.”

The opium poppy is one of the oldest medicinal plants in history. And while researchers think that the drug’s history stretches even further into the past, the new discovery is the earliest evidence of the substance itself. In this case, experts hypothesize that the opium originated in what is now Turkey, traveling next through Cyprus and all the way to Israel—which “highlights the complexity and grandeur of the vast international trade networks of this period,” as Haaretz’s Ariel David writes.

In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad dating to the eight century B.C.E. The newly discovered opium residue, however, is about 600 years older.