Late Bronze Age Tomb Opened in Israel


Archaeologists have uncovered the telltale chemical traces of opium in 3,300-year-old ceramics found in a vast Canaanite necropolis at Tel Yehud, in modern-day central Israel.

The discovery, published in July in the journal Archaeometry, opens a window into the cultic and burial practices of the inhabitants of the Levant during the Late Bronze Age.

Since the drug is believed to have been imported from Cyprus in specially-branded vessels, the find also highlights the complexity and grandeur of the vast international trade networks of this period.

A team led by Vanessa Linares analyzed 22 vessels that were uncovered in a 2017 excavation of tombs in Tel Yehud, a site now part of the modern-day Israeli town of Yehud. Linares, who is now a fellow at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, conducted the analysis as part of her doctoral research at Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyze substances absorbed by the ancient clay, Linares and colleagues found that eight of the vessels from Tel Yehud once contained opium alkaloids - organic compounds derived from the poppy plant. These included morphinan, which is the decomposition product of morphine, opianic acid and other compounds that, taken together, form the unmistakable chemical signature of opium, Linares explains.

 In the case of the 22 vessels included in the study, six contained fatty compounds indicative of the presence of some kind of vegetable oil, while the contents of eight more could not be identified. 

As to what exact purpose the drug served, we can only speculate, though the psychoactive, narcotic qualities of opium may have played a key role, she suggests.

The tombs at Tel Yehud date to the 14th century B.C.E. - that is, the Late Bronze Age - and are part of a sprawling city of the dead that includes thousands of burials, says Ron Be'eri, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist who took part in the dig directed by the IAA's Eriola Jakoel.