Israeli researchers say they have identified traces of cannabis and frankincense at an ancient shrine, suggesting both were used as part of cult practices in the Kingdom of Judah.
Excavations at Tel Arad in the Beer-sheba Valley in southern Israel 50 years ago revealed two superimposed fortresses, dated to the 9th to early 6th centuries BCE, which are believed to have guarded the southern border of the biblical kingdom.
A well-preserved shrine, dated to around 750-715 BCE, formed part of a “fortress mound”. Two limestone altars – 40 and 50 centimetres high – were found lying at the entrance to the “holy of holies”, the innermost and most sacred area of the shrine.
Both altars had solidified black organic material on their surfaces. Past analysis failed to identify it, but it recently was submitted to organic residue analysis by modern methods.
In a paper in the journal Tel Aviv, a team led by Eran Arie from the Israel Museum reports that on the smaller altar cannabis had been mixed with animal dung to facilitate heating, while the larger altar contained traces of frankincense that was mixed with animal fat to promote evaporation.
“It seems feasible to suggest that the use of cannabis on the Arad altar had a deliberate psychoactive role,” they write. “Cannabis odours are not appealing, and do not justify bringing the inflorescences from afar.”
The frequent use of hallucinogenic materials for cultic purposes in the Ancient Near East and beyond is well known and goes back as early as prehistoric periods, they note, and “8th century Judah may now be added to the places where these rituals took place”.
Arad also provides the earliest evidence for frankincense in a clear cultic context, they say. Frankincense is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burned in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma.
Frankincense comes from Arabia, so it’s presence at Arad indicates the participation of Judah in the south Arabian trade even before the patronage and encouragement of the Assyrian empire.
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