Marijuana Policy Project

Cannabis Use by Ancient Israelites Unearthed

Frontal view of the shrine at Arad, as rebuilt in the Israel Museum from the original archaeological finds. The inserts show a top-down view of the altars: on the left, the larger altar; on the right, the smaller altar. Note the visible black residue. (Collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, by Laura Lachman)

Two 2,700-year-old incense alters have been discovered in an archaeological site in Israel's Negev desert. Residue of cannabis and frankincense were found on the limestone alters in ruins at Tel Arad temple and fortress.

"The real shocker," Haaretz writes, "came from the smaller alter, which was 40 centimeters high and was found to be covered in chemicals including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) — substances that are found in cannabis."

The cannabis was heated using dung at an approximate temperature of 302°F.

"To induce the high you need the right temperature," says researcher Dvory Namdar. "They clearly knew this well, just as they knew which fuel to use for each substance."

Since cannabis was not grown in the Middle East at the that time, it had to be imported, most likely in the form of hash.

"If they wanted to make the temple, they could've burned some sage," comments Eran Arie, a curator at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem. "Importing cannabis and frankincense was a big investment that could not be made by some isolated group of nomads. It required backing from a powerful state entity."

The Holy of Holies site at Tel Arad during excavation. The two lying altars are in their original position on the second stair (at the cemter of the photograph) facing north. (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, S.J. Schweig Collection)

Drilling Down Further

In their report, "Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad," Namder, Arie and Baruch Rosen write: 

"The Small Altar contained cannabidiol (CBD), Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its degradation by-product cannabinol (CBN) were detected n the black heap of organic remains accumulated on the upper surface of the small altar. Finding the activated cannabinoids THC and CBD on top of an altar may intimate that cannabis inflorescences were burnt there, conceivably as part of a ritual that took place in the shrine.

"Along with the cannabinoids, mono- and sesqui-terpenes such as borneol, α-farnesene, β-caryophyllene, α-bulnesene, guaiadiene and longipinocarvone complimented this unique find. Most of the given terpenoids identified in the dark heap from the small altar, are known to be produced by cannabis inflorescences, in significant amounts. Moreover, β-Caryophyllene that was detected in the extract of the material found on the small altar, is the most abundant terpene in all cannabis chemovars. Thus, it may be suggested that together with the cannabinoids identified, which are unique to cannabis, at least part of the given terpenes and terpenoids also derive from the cannabis used."

They offer the following history lesson about ancient cannabis discoveries:

"Similar phytocannabinoidic assemblages were detected in two finds from different areas in China. The first is a magnificently well preserved find of ancient seeds and leaves of Cannabis sativa, retrieved from a burial cave in Yanghai tombs located in the Gobi Desert near Turpan, Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The find, dating to 700 BP, was botanically, morphologically, chemically and genetically identified as Cannabis sativa L. In the extract of the seeds, obtained in similar extraction and analytical methods to those applied here, assemblages of phytocannabinoids and their degraded by-products were identified. A similar assemblage of decarboxylated phytocannabinoids, containing CBD and its degradation by-product CBL, along with CBN, the THC degradation by-product, was recently reported from the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region. These similar cannabinoid assemblages reinforce the suggestion of cannabis presence on the Arad altars. Both finds show that in adequate conditions cannabinoids can be well preserved over many centuries."

One of 10 ancient Chinese incense burners, known as braziers, found in the 2,500-year-old cemetery with burned cannabis residues high in THC.

China's Cannabis Discoveries

• In 2008, a cache of ancient cannabis was discovered in a grave of a shaman in Xinjiang province in Western China.

• In 2016, 13 well-preserved cannabis plants were found at a 2,500-year-old burial site in Xinjiang, They were used as a burial shroud.

• In 2019, 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers, dating back to 500 BC, were unearthed in Jirzankal Cemetery in Xinjiang. They contained cannabis residue, like the alters in Israel.

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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.