Worshippers at a Jewish temple dating back more than 2,700 years likely smoked cannabis during cultic ceremonies, ancient Israeli limestone reveals.
Analysis of material on two Iron Age altars, discovered at the entrance to a shrine in Israel, were found to contain cannabis, as well as frankincense.
Renowned as one of the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men, the aromatic resin was regularly burned by priests during ancient ceremonial rituals.
But the presence of cannabis suggests the use of a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of esoteric ceremonies.
The alters were previously found within a shrine in the ancient ‘fortress mound’ of Tel Arad in Israel, which was excavated from the 1960s.
Frontal view of shine’s cella – a small room containing cult objects – at Arad, as rebuilt in the Israel Museum from the original archaeological find
Tel Arad is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, on which remains of a fortified city was found. It’s located west of the Dead Sea, about six miles from the modern Israeli city of Arad
‘This is the first time cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East,’ said lead author Dr Eran Arie, of the The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
‘Its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there.’
Dr Arie claims the discovery is the earliest evidence of cultic use of cannabis in the world and the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah.
The huge garrison housed soldiers to defend the southern border of the kingdom of Judah. Aerial view of Tel Arad in modern day Israel
Since no cannabis seeds of pollen remains have been found, Dr Arie and co author believe the plant was imported from distant origins and transported as dried resin, commonly known as hashish.
‘Since the fortress at Arad is rather limited in size, and the courtyard of the shrine might have use for the gathering of all the population of the fortress, one can imagine that everybody who dwelt in the fortress took part in the religious ceremonies in the shrine,’ he said.
‘However, since the altars were found inside the ‘holy of holies’ of the shrine, we cannot say for sure how many people were affected from the hallucinogenic effect of the cannabis.’
The larger alter with visible black residue. This alter contained traces of frankincense that was mixed with animal fat to promote evaporation
The smaller alter, where cannabis had once been mixed with animal dung to facilitate heating
Tel Arad, an archaeological mound in southern Israel’s Negev desert west of the Dead Sea, was a major city and fortress.
Unearthed in the 1960s, it included an outer courtyard and inner ‘holy of holies’ – an inner sanctuary in the presence of God where animals were slaughtered for sacrifice.
The original holy of holies of the shrine at Arad is on display in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, where it was sampled for this research.
The smaller alter again, from a different view. Both shed new light on cult practices in biblical Judah, suggesting cannabis was used here as a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies
Past excavations revealed two superimposed fortresses, dating to the 9th to early 6th centuries BC, which guarded the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah.
Highly important Iron Age finds were unearthed, including a well-preserved shrine that was dated to around 750 to 715 BC.
The altars – the smaller of which is about 15.7 inches high and the larger around 19.6 inches – were found lying at the entrance to the ‘holy of holies’ of the shrine.
Dark organic material preserved on their surface has been scanned, almost six decades later.
Thed original ‘holy of holies’ of the shrine at Arad is on display in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, where it was also sampled for this research
On the smaller altar, a range of cannabinoids – natural compounds in the cannabis plant – had been mixed with animal dung to help the drug burn.
Analysis identified traces of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive constituent that makes users feel ‘high’, as well as the pain reliever CBD (cannabidiol).
On the larger alter, meanwhile, they found chemical compounds indicative of frankincense, which had been mixed with animal fat to fuel its evaporation.
Frankincense is the resin of the Boswellia sacra – a small tree found in Oman, Yemen and Somalia.
Dr Arie said its presence at Arad also indicates the participation of Judah in the south Arabian trade much earlier than previously believed.
Arad also provides the earliest evidence for frankincense in a clear cultic context, according to the research team.
Sketch of the original fortress mound’ of Tel Arad in Israel. The huge garrison housed soldiers to defend the southern border of the kingdom of Judah
The fact only one substance was associated with each altar suggests that each was used over again for the same substance, indicating repeated use.
‘The plants detected in this study can serve as an extra-biblical source in identifying the incense used in cultic practices not only at Arad but also those elsewhere in Judah, including Jerusalem,’ said Dr Arie.
‘The Bible only relates to incense for its agreeable fragrance – frankincense is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burnt in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma,’ said Dr Arie.
‘The presence of cannabis at Arad testifies to the use of mind-altering substances as part of cultic rituals in Judah.’
The findings, including a full list of chemical compounds found on the alters, have been published in the journal Tel Aviv.
TEL ARAD HOUSES THE RUINS OF A LARGE WALLED CITY
Tel Arad is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, on which remains of a fortified city was found in the 1960s.
The huge garrison housed soldiers to defend the southern border of the kingdom of Judah back in its day.
It dates to between the 10th and 6th centuries BC, from the time of King Solomon to King Josiah.
The ‘fortress mound’ of Tel Arad was excavated between 1962−1967 on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Yohanan Aharoni.
Excavations revealed six well-preserved phases of two superimposed, squared fortresses, dated from the 9th to the early 6th centuries BC.
The Arad shrine was first detected during the second season of excavations in 1963, when Aharoni revealed a cella – a small room containing cult objects.
Two limestone altars were found lying at the entrance to the ‘holy of holies’ – an inner sanctuary in the presence of God – in the shrine.
The smaller altar is 15.7 inches (40cm) high and about 7.8x 7.8 inches (20×20cm) at the top, while the larger is about 19.6 inches (50cm) high and 11.8×11.8 inches (30×30cm) at the top.
Though they differed in size, the two altars shared similar characteristics – raw material, production technique, form, proportions, and a groove that separated their top part from their base.
The upper surfaces of both altars had a shallow depression, while in the centre of both of these depressions, round heaps of black solidified organic material was preserved, tightly adhering to the altars’ upper surfaces.
The Arad shrine was in use for merely half a century, from about 760 or 750 to around 715 BC, while the stone altars may have been in use for a shorter period of a decade or two.