Worshippers at a Jewish temple dating back more than 2,700 years got high on cannabis, according to new research.
The shrine provides the earliest evidence of dope – beating the previous record by a quarter of a century.
Material on two limestone altars were found to contain cannabis along with frankincense – renowned as one of the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men for the birth of Jesus.
The aromatic resin was regularly burned by priests during ancient ceremonial rituals. But the discovery of cannabis in the form of hashish has shocked Biblical scholars.
Lead author Dr Eran Arie, of the The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, said: ‘This is the first time 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.’
The Tel Arad ruins in southern Israel’s Negev desert cover much of the Old Testament’s story.
It was a major city and fortress and included an outer courtyard and inner ‘holy of holies’ where animals were slaughtered for sacrifice. Unearthed in the 1960s, it is the only remaining ancient Israeli temple.
Now, dark organic material preserved on the foot wide surfaces of the altars has been scanned – almost six decades later.
Dr Arie, an archaeologist at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, said the discovery was a shock since the drug is hallucinogenic.
He said: ‘This is the earliest evidence of cultic use of cannabis in the world.’
Last year evidence of cannabis smoking was unearthed in 2,500 year old tombs in Western China.
It has been found at other ancient sites – including the Altai Mountains in Siberia. But Tel Arad provides the earliest to date.
Since no cannabis seeds of pollen remains have been found, Dr Arie and co author believe the plant was imported from distant origins and transported as dried resin – commonly known as hashish.
Dr Arie said: ‘Since the fortress at Arad is rather limited in size, and the courtyard of the shrine might have use for the gathering of all the population of the fortress, one can imagine that everybody who dwelt in the fortress took part in the religious ceremonies in the shrine.
‘However, since the altars were found inside the ‘Holy of Holies’ of the shrine, we cannot say for sure how many people were affected from the hallucinogenic effect of the cannabis.’
On the smaller altar, standing about 16 inches tall, cannabis had been mixed with animal dung to help it burn.
Analysis identified traces of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive part that makes users feel ‘high’, as well as the pain reliever CBD (cannabidiol).
The larger 20 inch high monolith frankincense had been mixed with animal fat to fuel its evaporation.
Dr Arie said the findings shed fresh light on religious practices in biblical Judah, suggesting cannabis was used here as a deliberate psychoactive – to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies.
He said: ‘The Bible only relates to incense for its agreeable fragrance – frankincense is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burnt in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma.
‘The presence of cannabis at Arad testifies to the use of mind-altering substances as part of cultic rituals in Judah.
‘The plants detected in this study can serve as an extra-biblical source in identifying the incense used in cultic practices not only at Arad but also those elsewhere in Judah, including Jerusalem.’
The huge garrison housed soldiers to defend the southern border of the kingdom of Judah.
It dates to between the 10th and 6th centuries BC, from the time of King Solomon to King Josiah. The shrine was built around 750BC – and only used for about fifty years.
Dr Arie said: ‘This is the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah.
‘The Arad shrine was in use for merely half a century – from about 760 or 750 to around 715BC. The stone altars may have been in use for a shorter period of a decade or two.’
‘The fact only one substance – accompanied by a single burning material – was associated with each altar, points to either the same use for each altar over again, or, preferably, the altars’ surfaces were scrubbed clean between uses.’
A hoard of over 100 Hebrew inscriptions have also been been discovered on pottery shards from the 7th and 6th centuries.
They name two priestly families mentioned in the Hebrew Bible – Passhur and Meremoth.
Frankincense is the resin of the Boswellia sacra – a small tree found in Oman, Yemen and Somalia.
Dr Arie said its presence at Arad also indicates the participation of Judah in the south Arabian trade much earlier than previously believed.
It is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burned in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma.
The findings published in the journal Tel Aviv also calls into further question the Biblical claim Solomon’s temple was alone in the ancient Kingdom of Judah.
According to the Bible, the Jewish people were prohibited from worshipping outside of Solomon’s Temple – and the other ‘high places’ of worship were destroyed.
Earlier experts unearthed another temple in Judah – what is today southern Israel – which dates back to between around 900-600 BC and is attached to a granary.
This ‘other’ temple and had 150 congregants who worshipped Yahweh but also used idols in order to commune with the divine.
In 2012 another Iron Age temple dating back to 900 to 600 BC was discovered at Tel Motza near Jerusalem.
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