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Archaeologists Discover Cannabis Residues On 2,700-Year-Old Biblical Shrine

Like many psychoactive plants, cannabis has been used as a spiritual sacrament by various cultures worldwide for thousands of years, and new research suggests that it may have facilitated communion with the gods in the biblical Kingdom of Judah. Rather than rolling up a sacred spliff or sucking on a biblical bong, however, it seems that worshippers mixed the plant with animal dung before setting it alight to release cannabinoids into the air.

In a new study in the journal Tel Aviv, a team of archaeologists describe how they found cannabis residues on an Iron Age shrine known as the ‘Holy of Holies’, which dates back to around 750 BCE[i]. Located inside the fortress mound of Tel Arad, which guarded the Judahite kingdom’s southern border, the shrine was first excavated back in the 1960s, when researchers noted the presence of an unknown black substance on the surface of the altar.

Using a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, a group of scientists have finally identified this strange religious resin, which was found to contain both THC and CBD. Results also revealed the presence of cannabinol (CBN), which forms when THC degrades, as well as a range of terpenes belonging to the Cannabis sativa plant, such as β-caryophyllene and borneol.

These cannabis residues were found to be mixed with the excrement of an unidentified animal, probably to help it burn. Given this choice of kindling, it seems highly unlikely that this makeshift incense was being used for its smell, indicating that worshippers must have been trying to get high.

Tel Arad is found in modern-day Israel, which has in recent years become a world leader in cannabis research. However, according to study author Eran Arie from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, very little evidence exists for the use of the plant in this region in antiquity. “This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; Its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there,” he explained[ii].

In their write-up, the researchers note that this is the first known evidence for any psychoactive plant being used in the Kingdom of Judah, and explain that cannabis was “used at Arad as a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies.”

However, given the lack of evidence for the cultivation of marijuana in the region, the origins of the plant matter used in these holy rituals remains something of a mystery. Interestingly, no traces of pollen or plant material of any kind were found at the shrine, suggesting that the samples found here may have been grown elsewhere and transported in the form of a dried resin – hash, basically.

Most of the evidence for ancient cannabis use and cultivation comes from the Far East, with macrofossils on 10,000-year-old pieces of Japanese pottery being the earliest examples[iii]. Numerous archaeological discoveries suggest that marijuana played an important role in Chinese spiritual life during Tel Arad’s heyday, with residues found on incense burners inside burial chambers at the Jirzankal Cemetery in Western China[iv].

How and when the plant made its way to the Middle East, however, is not entirely certain, although it seems likely that the Silk Route acted as a conduit for the plant’s passage to the holy land in slightly later times.

[i] Arie et al, ‘Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad’, TEL AVIV Vol. 47, 2020, 5–28


[iii] Kudo Y, Kobayashi M, Momohara A, Noshiro S, Nakamura T, Okitsu S, Yanagisawa S, Okamoto T. Radiocarbon dating of the fossil hemp fruits in the earliest Jomon period from the Okinoshima Site, Chiba, Japan. Japanese Journal of Historical Botany. 2009;17:27-32.

[iv] Ren M, Tang Z, Wu X, Spengler R, Jiang H, Yang Y, Boivin N. The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs. Science advances. 2019 Jun 1;5(6):eaaw1391.

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Ben Taub