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By Tel Aviv University
Taylor and Francis Online 

Cannabis at the Judahite Shrine of Arad

Cannabis Substance Found To Be Mixed with Animal Dung


Last updated 6/4/2020 at 2:51pm

Two thirds monoliths, translated as altars, were located at the Judahite shrine in Tel Arad. Unidentified dark substance maintained in their top surfaces has been filed for natural residue analysis in two unrelated labs that utilized similar based extraction procedures.

On the bigger group, residues of cannabinoids for example Δ9-teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were discovered, and a variety of terpenes and terpenoids, indicating that cannabis inflorescences were burnt onto it. Organic residues credited to animal dung were also discovered, indicating the cannabis resin was blended with dung to empower heat.

The bigger altar included an assemblage of suggestive triterpenes like boswellic acid and norursatriene, which derives in frankincense. The additional presence of animal fat--related substances like testosterone, androstene and cholesterolsuggests that resin has been combined with it to relieve evaporation. These low-cut residues shed new light about the usage of 8th century Arad altars and also on incense supplies in Judah through the Iron Age.

Tel Arad is the first locale where incense from Iron Age Judah has been successfully examined. Two different incense components and two different fuel beds were defined on two altars from an 8th century BCE shrine. The results show that the larger altar contained frankincense that was mixed with animal fat for evaporation. On the other altar, cannabis substance was mixed with animal dung to enable its mild heating.

Although frankincense is well-known as one of the key components of biblical incense, it has not yet been scientifically identified in a Levantine archaeological context. The presence of frankincense at Arad indicates the existence of South Arabian trade that took place under the patronage of the Assyrian empire as early as the 8th century BCE. Historical and biblical texts demonstrate that the use of frankincense was varied and that it was utilized both in the public and private spheres. Arad presents the earliest known identification of frankincense in a clear cultic context.

The discovery of cannabis on the smaller altar was a surprise. 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 hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah. To explore this further, more altars, incense burners and other cult related objects from Judah and its neighbors, deriving from controlled excavations of well-preserved contexts, should be studied. For example, two contemporary stone altars from Khirbet el-Mudēyine in Jordan (Daviau 2007: 133−134, 137, Figs. 3, 8) bearing charred botanical material were not analyzed for their chemical content.

The Arad shrine was in use for merely half a century (from ca. 760/750 to ca. 715 BCE) and the stone altars may have been in use for a shorter period of a decade or two. The fact that 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.

The utilization of plant material for fragrance or psychoactive alterations is not new to the region in general, nor to ceremonial complexes in particular. Frankincense has long been used as incense during ritual ceremonies. The use of psychoactive materials is also well known in ancient Near Eastern and Aegean cultures since prehistory. It seems likely that cannabis was used at Arad as a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies. If so, this is the first such evidence in the cult of Judah.

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.


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