A new study published in the Archaeological Journal Tel Aviv found that cannabis was used in the Ancient Near East for religious rituals. The researchers found evidence of cannabis use while studying two altars from an ancient shrine in Israel.
The two limestone altars were discovered in 1963 at the entrance to the “Holy of Holies” of a Judahite shrine devoted to Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God in the bible. The site was built in approximately 750 B.C.E. on the Tel Arad, an archeological mound located in Israel’s Beersheba Valley – west of the Dead Sea, and was only in use for around 35 years.
The residue found on top of both limestone altars was considered to be the ritualistic use of incense. However, recent chemical analysis of the residue found that the findings of the original discovery, made over 50 years ago, were inconclusive.
Eran Arie, the lead author of the study, realized that the residue on the altars, which have been on display since 1965, was still intact when the exhibit was moved between 2007 and 2010. In 2018, he realized that modern technology could give them a better grasp of what the true source of the residue may be. Liquid chromatography and gas chromatography were used to analyze the residue again.
The final chemical analysis unveiled that the residue on the two altars contained cannabinoids THC, CBD, and CBN. Fatty acids and hormones attributed to a mammalian source and animal feces were found on the first altar, while the second altar contained terpenoids, associated with frankincense, and further evidence of animal fat of mammalian origin.
A Surprise Discovery For Modern Researchers
Eran Arie stated that the discovery of cannabis residue came as a surprise to all the researchers working on the project.
“We know from all around the Ancient Near East, and around the world, that many cultures used hallucinogenic materials and ingredients in order to get into some kind of religious ecstasy,” he told CNN. “We never thought about Judah taking part in these cultic practices,”
“The fact that we found cannabis in an official cult place of Judah says something new about the cult of Judah,” Arie added.
The fatty acids found at the site were believed to be mixed with a cannabis resin to achieve a slow, smoldering burn that would produce smoke for group inhalation. Arie believes that the frankincense was burned on the larger altar as incense and cannabis was burned for its psychoactive effect rather than its aroma.
“If you really wanted only the order or the fragrance of cannabis, you could’ve burned sage,” he said. The purpose of the cannabis wasn’t for scent, “it was a matter of ecstasy and the hallucinogenic effects from the burning of cannabis.”
The authors of the study wrote that they were unsure of how cannabis made its way to Tel Arad, but since there were no cannabis seeds or pollen on the archeological sites in the Ancient Near East, they theorize that it was imported to the area as hashish.