A study found traces of the drug at a 2,700-year-old desert shrine.
Israeli archaeologists have found cannabis residue in artifacts from an ancient temple in southern Israel, providing the first evidence for the drug’s use in the ancient Near East and in old Judaic ceremonies.
In a research paper published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, authors confirm that traces of a cannabinoid substance were found on a limestone altar that stood in an eighth-century BC temple at Tel Arad, in Israel’s Negev desert.
The temple site was discovered in the 1960s, when archaeological excavations at Tel Arad, around 60km south of Jerusalem, unearthed a small shrine belonging to the ancient kingdom of Judah that bore many similarities to the biblical Temple in Jerusalem.
Efforts over decades to determine the composition of black organic deposits that had been found on the temple’s two limestone altars were shown to be inconclusive, until now.
The study reveals that chemical analysis conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion Institute found that one altar contained tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in marijuana.
It indicated that it was burned atop dried animal dung, suggesting that the cannabis resin had been mixed to enable mild heating.
The second altar had traces of frankincense, which is one of the ingredients mentioned in the Bible for incense sacrifice in the ancient Jewish Temples.
“These well-preserved residues shed new light on the use of 8th century Arad altars and on incense offerings in Judah during the Iron Age,” the authors said.
The discovery of frankincense and cannabis in these findings suggests that they were likely to have been imported over long-distance trade routes.
“The presence of frankincense at Arad indicates the existence of South Arabian trade that took place under the patronage of the Assyrian empire as early as the 8th century BCE,” the authors claim.
According to Ariel David, an archaeological correspondent for Haaretz, there is no evidence for cannabis being grown in the Levant region during the period.
The discovery of cannabis is groundbreaking because it also suggests that the Kingdom of Judah used psychoactive materials in their religious ceremonies.
“It seems likely that cannabis was used at Arad as a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies. If so, this is the first such evidence in the cult of Judah,” the study concluded.
Because of the temple site’s clear connection to the monarchy, it could also draw implications for how ritualistic worship was conducted in the biblical Temple of Jerusalem.
The study further points to anthropological evidence for marijuana’s use for both recreational and medicinal purposes among tribes in the Indian subcontinent, South America and Africa.
More broadly, the findings add to a growing body of research that studies how psychotropic substances have been linked with religious practices and mystical experiences.