Archaeologists Identify Traces of Burnt Cannabis in Ancient Jewish Shrine

New research suggests the mind-altering substance may have been widely used in the ritual practices of the Kingdom of Judah

ancient Israeli shrine
Archaeologists found the two altars seen here featured burnt cannabis (right) and frankincense (left), respectively. Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, by Laura Lachman

Roughly 35 miles south of Jerusalem, in an archaeological site in the Negev desert known as Tel Arad, archaeologists excavating an ancient Jewish shrine have found traces of burnt cannabis and frankincense on a pair of limestone altars, reports Kristen Rogers of CNN.

The new research, published last week in the journal Tel Aviv, provides the first evidence that the mind-altering substance was part of religious life in the ancient kingdom of Judah. Tel Arad contains the remains of a Canaanite city from the third millennium B.C., as well as Israelite fortresses from between the 10th and 6th centuries B.C.

Excavations in the 1960s identified a pair of citadels that guarded the southern border of the kingdom of Judah during that time, as well as a well-preserved shrine dated to roughly 760-715 B.C., according to a statement from the researchers?.

It was within this shrine that the two stone altars were discovered with the remains of what appeared to be burnt plant material. The stone altars were found at the entrance of the shrine’s inner sanctum, known as the “holy of holies,” reports CNN. The chemical analysis conducted by researchers helps provide a window into the rituals and spiritual life of the Judahites.

"This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there," says Eran Arie, an archaeologist with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and lead author of the new research, in the statement.

The shrine is also contemporaneous with the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, suggesting similar ritual practices may have taken place at the biblical house of worship, per Ilan Ben Zion for the Associated Press. The shrine at Tel Arad also bears a close physical resemblance to the first Temple.

Prior analyses of the dark, burnt-looking spots on the altars discovered in the Tel Arad shrine conducted in the 1960s had been inconclusive as to their origins, reports Bruce Bower for Science News.

The new research applied modern chemical analysis techniques to the residues on each of the two altars. The smaller of the two altars was found to have a mixture of animal dung and cannabis that contained sufficient THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) to get those breathing in its fumes high, per Science News.

The residue on the larger altar was composed of animal fats and frankincense, the dried sap of trees in the Boswellia genus, according to the paper. The researchers write that the dung and animal fats were used to burn the cannabis and frankincense at temperatures that would release their respective mind-altering and fragrant smoke.

"What stands out most to me is that cannabis was used in concert with frankincense, rather than being mixed with frankincense or other identifiable plant products," Robert C. Clarke, an independent ethnobotanical researcher who was not part of the study, tells CNN. "This implies that there were special independent connotations assigned to the use of each plant substance."

Besides the potential incorporation of altered states of consciousness to worship, the findings also have implications for the understanding of trade routes at the time. Arie tells Science News that the cannabis was likely grown somewhere in southeastern Russia or China and Robert Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute who was not involved in the study, suggests information about cannabis use spread west from Asia along the Silk Road.

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