Skip to main content

Ancient people in the Kingdom of Judah may have gotten high off weed

An aerial view of the Tel Arad fortress that stands in what was once the Kingdom of Judah.
An aerial view of the Tel Arad fortress that stands in what was once the Kingdom of Judah.
(Image: © Asaf. Z; Public Domain)

More than 2,700 years ago, worshipers at a "holy of holies" shrine in Israel may have gotten high on weed. Researchers discovered burnt cannabis and frankincense at the site, which was located in the Kingdom of Judah.

Researchers made the discovery after analyzing ancient residues left on two altars at the shrine. The burnt cannabis is "the first known evidence of [a] hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah," a region that now includes parts of the West Bank and central Israel, the researchers wrote in the study.

Once the cannabis was burned at the Iron Age site, "we can assume that the religious altered state of consciousness in this shrine was an important part of the ceremonies that took place here," study lead researcher Eran Arie, the curator of Iron Age and Persian period archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, told Live Science in an email.

Related: Image gallery: 7 potent medicinal plants

Archaeologists first excavated the site in the 1960s; they unearthed two fortresses, dating to from the ninth to the early sixth centuries B.C., that flanked the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah. During these excavations, archaeologists found a well-preserved shrine dating to about 750 B.C. to 715 B.C. 

At the shrine's entrance were two limestone altars, one standing 18 inches (40 centimeters) high and the other 20 inches (50 cm) tall. Each altar had a shallow depression on top containing "round heaps of black solidified organic material," the researchers wrote in the study. Based on the altars' characteristics, researchers concluded this was a "holy of holies" shrine, meant to evoke the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle of the Israelites, where God was thought to appear. Tests of this black gunk in the 1960s gave mostly inconclusive results, noting only that one clump contained animal fat. 

Image 1 of 8

A view of the shrine, with a bird's-eye view of the depressions and burnt remnants on top of each altar.

A view of the shrine, with a bird's-eye views of the depressions and burnt remnants on top of each altar. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)

Image gallery

Image 2 of 8

The shorter altar stands 18 inches (40 cm) high.

The shorter altar stands 18 inches (40 cm) high. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)
Image 3 of 8

The top of the shorter altar had the burnt remains of cannabis and animal dung.

The top of the shorter altar had the burnt remains of cannabis and animal dung. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)
Image 4 of 8

The altars stood next to one another at the shrine.

The altars stood next to one another at the shrine. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)
Image 5 of 8

The taller altar stands 20 inches (50 cm) tall.

The taller altar stands 20 inches (50 cm) tall. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)
Image 6 of 8

The burnt remnants of the frankincense and animal fat on the taller pillar.

The burnt remnants of frankincense and animal fat were detected on the taller pillar. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)
Image 7 of 8

A drawing of the Tel Arad fortress

A drawing of the Tel Arad fortress (Image credit: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Esther Stark)
Image 8 of 8

The shrine was rebuilt at the Israel Museum.

The shrine was rebuilt at the Israel Museum. (Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman)

Arie decided to reanalyze this black material, especially since some residue still remained on the altars. He teamed up with study co-researcher Dvory Namdar, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Volcani Center of Agricultural Research in Israel. Namdar has expertise in analyzing residue from ancient burned incense, but "we never thought we [would] reveal such an amazing find" as the cannabis, Arie said. 

However, Namdar was worried that the sample could have been contaminated; at the time, she worked in a lab that conducted cannabinoid research. So, the researchers "re-sampled the altars and verified the results in another laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem," Arie said. "The results were the same."

Ceremonial burning

The new tests revealed that the smaller altar contained burned cannabis and animal droppings. It appears that "animal dung was used as the fuel [to burn] the cannabis," Arie said. Dung burns more slowly than herbs, so it would have slowed down the burning process, he said.

The taller altar contained the remnants of frankincense and animal fat, which would have promoted evaporation of the aromatic tree resin. It's the earliest evidence that frankincense was used in a cultic practice in the Kingdom of Judah, Arie said. 

Both of these findings provide clues about cultic practices in the Kingdom of Judah. In particular, the cannabis finding indicates that people may have purposefully used the plant for its "hallucinogenic ingredients," to stimulate ecstasy during cultic ceremonies, at least during the eighth century B.C., Arie said. 

Practices at this shrine may also shed light on the First Temple, also known as Solomon's Temple, which was also in the Kingdom of Judah and in use at the same time. The shrine at Arad "was an official shrine of the Kingdom of Judah," Arie said, so it's possible that these findings can be "extra-biblical evidence" that similar practices were used in the First Temple, Arie said. 

In other words, the bible mentions that frankincense was burned in the First Temple, but because this shrine used both cannabis and frankincense, these substances "were probably also (at least) part of the components of the incense that was burnt in the Temple in Jerusalem," Arie said.

Related: Photos: The ancient ruins of Shivta in southern Israel

Shopping around

Where did these burned ingredients originate? Frankincense comes from Arabia, so it's likely that the Kingdom of Judah took part in the south Arabian trade, even before the Assyrian empire encouraged such practices starting in 701 B.C., the researchers said. Moreover, it probably wasn't cheap. "The high value of frankincense is further reflected in the Bible, where its price is compared several times with that of gold and precious stones, and it is often described as a royal treasure," the researchers wrote in the study.

Cannabis, in contrast, isn't local to the Middle East. Rather, cannabis originated high on the Tibetan Plateau, according to a study of fossil pollen. What's more, there aren't any cannabis seeds or pollen remains known in the ancient Near East's archaeological record. So, it's possible that cannabis plants "may have been imported from distant origins and were transported as dried resin (commonly known as hashish)," the researchers wrote in the study. 

The new finding "is revolutionary in making a case for the use of specialized psychoactive plants in early Israelite religion," said Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study.

However, McGovern said the study could have delved deeper into the cannabis findings. "The proposal that the cannabis was heated to release psychoactive compounds, rather than for its aroma as an incense (provided by the frankincense, in any case), is an intriguing proposition," he said. 

It's interesting that the Hebrew Bible doesn't appear to mention cannabis use, and that there isn't any known archaeobotanical evidence for the plant at the shrine, he noted. That said, it may not be far-fetched, given that people in the Kingdom of Judah did use another mind-altering substance in rituals, namely alcohol, McGovern said. The study doesn't mention "the psychoactive properties of grape wine, which we know to have played a central role in early Israelite religion," McGovern said. 

The study was published online yesterday (May 28) in the journal Tel Aviv

Originally published on Live Science.

OFFER: Save 45% on 'How It Works' 'All About Space' and 'All About History'!

For a limited time, you can take out a digital subscription to any of our best-selling science magazines for just $2.38 per month, or 45% off the standard price for the first three months.View Deal

  • Tinman0001
    admin said:
    This is the oldest known evidence of marijuana from the Kingdom of Judah.

    Burned cannabis found at 'holy of holies' shrine in ancient Kingdom of Judah : Read more
    May I ask, how can we be certain that the cannabis was burned by the people using the temple and not simply a component of/in the animal dung? Since there are no archaeological records of cannabis use in the area, wouldn't it be just as easy to postulate that the cannabis was transported to the area in the dung itself?
    Reply
  • Lucille
    In the Christmas story, indeed, gold, frankincense, and myrrh was brought to the baby Jesus as gifts from the wise men of the East. They are royal treasures for a king. Maybe the cannabis was used to sedate the animal before slaughter. Like today, horse owners will kill his horse that has a broken leg to put him out of misery. That is called mercy.
    Reply
  • Roger_Christie
    Aloha. Well that should be the end of calling "marihuana" the devil's weed.
    Almost every hippie knew this evidence was coming one day. What the ancients might have called "being in the Holy Spirit" we've called "getting high".
    Think of all the innocent people arrested, imprisoned and worse for decades just for wanting to commune with God like in the ancient temples' Holy of Holies.
    This is huge news, doubly scientifically proven. It's time for amnesty and making amends where possible to all those wrongly convicted of "marihuana" crimes that weren't crimes at all.
    May unexpected blessings come with this great news..

    PS. Kaneh Bosem is the Hebrew word for Cannabis hemp. Did you know that strong evidence exists pointing to Cannabis being an important ingredient in the holy anointing oil of Moses and the christening oil of Jesus? See Exodus 30:23. Makes perfect sense. All English language Bibles call it 'fragrant cane', 'sweet cane', 'aromatic cane' or calamus.

    Messiah, Christ and Mahdi all translate to the anointed.
    Christian is an anointed one.
    Jesus Christ translates to I am anointed.
    Anti-Christ is against anointing.
    So what's anointing? Exactly?
    "We believe anointing is a literal thing. Anoint your crown with holy oil and hear the angels sing."

    It can be argued that there is no real Bible without Cannabis hemp. This scientific discovery makes that a more likely possibility now. Talk about a Revelation.

    All the best to everyone,

    @@@
    Reply
  • rbjones
    "we can assume that the religious altered state of consciousness in this shrine was an important part of the ceremonies that took place here," You may "assume" anything you want. Every contention in this article is speculation. The only "fact" is that cannabis plant material was found at a shrine. The pungent odor of cannabis can make it a type of insense. The psychoactive THC in cannabis was of such a low percentage that it would be unlikely to have any psychoactive effect being openly burned. The quantities and duration would have to be considerable. Cannabis was more likely used as a fiber product along with some other ceremonial items. Pro-marijuana advocates (maybe the authors?) will draw any connection in an attempt to justify and normalize the current psychoactive use of the plant. The fact that there is no mention of using this plant for intoxicating purposes in the historical record speaks volumes about its "importance."
    Reply
  • Oklahoma
    If this is an older Jewish site then others must have used it after the Jews left because excrement is forbidden in the temple. Leviticus 4:11 But the hide of the bull, all its flesh along with its head and its legs, its entrails, and its DUNG – 4:12 all the rest of the bull – he must bring outside the camp to a ceremonially clean place, to the fatty ash pile, and he must burn it on a wood fire; it must be burned on the fatty ash pile.
    Reply
  • Lucille
    Roger_Christie said:
    Aloha. Well that should be the end of calling "marihuana" the devil's weed.
    Almost every hippie knew this evidence was coming one day. What the ancients might have called "being in the Holy Spirit" we've called "getting high".
    Think of all the innocent people arrested, imprisoned and worse for decades just for wanting to commune with God like in the ancient temples' Holy of Holies.
    This is huge news, doubly scientifically proven. It's time for amnesty and making amends where possible to all those wrongly convicted of "marihuana" crimes that weren't crimes at all.
    May unexpected blessings come with this great news..

    PS. Kaneh Bosem is the Hebrew word for Cannabis hemp. Did you know that strong evidence exists pointing to Cannabis being an important ingredient in the holy anointing oil of Moses and the christening oil of Jesus? See Exodus 30:23. Makes perfect sense. All English language Bibles call it 'fragrant cane', 'sweet cane', 'aromatic cane' or calamus.

    Messiah, Christ and Mahdi all translate to the anointed.
    Christian is an anointed one.
    Jesus Christ translates to I am anointed.
    Anti-Christ is against anointing.
    So what's anointing? Exactly?
    "We believe anointing is a literal thing. Anoint your crown with holy oil and hear the angels sing."

    It can be argued that there is no real Bible without Cannabis hemp. This scientific discovery makes that a more likely possibility now. Talk about a Revelation.

    All the best to everyone,

    @@@
    There was no marijuana in the Holy of Holies. The Shekinah glory is not a drug. Priests and kings were anointed with olive oil.
    Reply