The first evidence of cannabis being used by ancient Israelites has been discovered after researchers found well-preserved cannaboid residue on an altar of a shrine in an ancient Israelite temple, according to a study published in the Journal of the Institute of Tel Aviv University.
The cannaboid residue is indicative that Israelites used cannabis for religious ceremonies. Researchers recently discovered this after analyzing “unidentified dark material” found on one of two altars of the Judahite shrine in the ancient temple of Tel Arad in the Negev.
On the smaller of the two altars, residues of cannaboids teterahydrocannabinol (THC); cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were found, together with residues attributed to animal dung, suggesting that the cannabis resin had been mixed with the dung to enable heating.
The presence of animal fat also found in the material implies that it was mixed with the cannabis resin to facilitate evaporation. On the second, larger altar, derivatives of frankincense were found. Although frankincense is well known as one of the key components of biblical incense, it had not been scientifically identified in a Levantine archaeological context.
The fortress mound of Tel Arad was originally excavated by Yonahan Ahroni on behalf of the Department of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the early 1960’s. Excavations found fortresses that dated from the 9th to the early 6th centuries BCE that guarded the Judahite kingdom’s southern border, the era when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.
While the excavation of the temple began in the 1960’s, it wasn’t until recently that one of the residues found on the smaller alter was re-analyzed and identified as cannabis. In the 1960’s the dark material found on the altar was submitted to the Hebrew University’s Biochemistry Department, but results remained inconclusive.
Gad Avigad, who analyzed the material during the initial discovery, suggested that the material contained animal fat, implying that the altars could have been used for small-animal sacrificing. Most scholars assumed that the altars were used for incense burning, though no positive evidence of incense was ever found.
When the Arad shrine was excavated in 1963-1965, it was transferred to the Israel Museum. In 2007-2010, the archaeology wing of the museum was renovated, sparking a renewed interest in the shrine. These changes encouraged the new analysis of the organic material found on the altars with the hope that improved techniques would give a greater understanding of the materials used, as well as perhaps the rituals performed at the time.
A very small sample from each shrine was taken and preserved in aluminum foil. To ensure true results and minimize the possibility of cross-contamination during the process, sampling was independently repeated and analyzed both at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Givat Ram.
The well preserved residues shed new light on the use of the Arad altars and on offerings in Judah during the Iron Age.
Researchers were surprised to discover the cannabis found on the altars. Arad provides the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East. Hallucinogenic substances are known from various neighboring cultures, but this is the first known evidence of a hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah. It seems likely that cannabis was used at Arad as a deliberate psychoactive.