Jars from 3,500 years ago contained opium, the oldest chemical evidence of the drug. Cultivating poppies appears in texts as long as 5,000 years ago but scientists hadn’t found the drug itself. The Israel Antiquities Authority sent 22 excavated jugs and jars for testing. Eight of them had chemical traces of opium. Because archaeologists excavated some from grave sites, they think the drug was part of burial rituals or to help the spirit in the afterlife. Scientists think the containers are shaped like the poppy seed capsules that opium is made from. It was apparently common for traded goods to come in jars shaped like what they held.
Scientists uncovered the pottery, mostly a style known as base-ring jugs, during a dig near Tel Aviv in 2012. Many of the containers came from Cyprus, while the opium likely originated in Turkey so the discovery is also evidence of strong trade routes. Scientists found lower concentrations of opium in jugs made locally, possibly meaning the pottery was not as strong and didn’t preserve the evidence. People may have diluted the drug, either because they were trying to stretch out the supply of opium or they preferred a lower dose.
We learned about this discover in Smithsonian Magazine. The peer-reviewed journal Archaeometry published the results. The chemical analysis is similar to that used to determine the contents of other ancient containers. After finding yeast in an ancient Egyptian jar, someone even used it to make bread. Not bad considering one ingredients was 4,500 years old.
Other recent finds announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority include hundreds of bone dice used in games and rituals. Perhaps getting high and playing games is a much older pastime than one might think.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.