Ancient ceramic pots, most of them nearly identical in shape and about five inches long, have been found in tombs and settlements throughout the Middle East, dating as far back as 1,400 B.C., said Joe Zias, an anthropologist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
The drugs were probably used as medicine and the finds are helping researchers better understand how ancient people treated illness and disease.
"It's a window to the past that many people are unaware of," Zias told a recent conference in Israel on DNA and archaeology. "Here's something used in prehistoric times and it's used until today."
When turned upside down, the thin-necked vessels with round bases resemble opium poppies pods. If there was any doubt about what was inside, the round bases have white markings, designs that symbolized knife cuts made on poppies bulbs so the white opium base can ooze and be harvested, Zias said.
The Mycenaean ceramics were analyzed with a procedure called gas chromatography that turned up traces of opium.
Hundreds of the pots have been found and they commonly show up in the hands of antiquities dealers in places like Jerusalem's Old City. "Give me an hour there and I could find you 10 of them," Zias said.
Based on ancient Egyptian medical writings from the 3rd millennium B.C., researchers believe opium and hashish, a smokable drug that comes from the concentrated resin from the flowers of hemp plants, were used during surgery and to treat aches and pains and other ailments. Hashish was also used to ease menstrual cramps and was even offered to women during childbirth.
Based on Egyptian writings, archaeologists believe the opium was eaten rather than smoked.
The drugs are part of a medical record that shows the ancients were far more advanced than most people realize, Zias said, noting evidence that European people did cranial surgery as long as 10,000 years ago, while the Romans left records of 120 surgical procedures.
Mark Spigelman, a Zias colleague at Hebrew University, found one of the poppy-shaped ceramic pots from the middle Bronze Age in Siqqura, a Giza cemetery near the pyramids outside of Cairo during a dig four years ago. The pot, found in an 18th Egyptian Dynasty grave, was identical to other pots found throughout ancient Israel and the Middle East.
"These guys were selling opium all over the Middle East," Spigelman said. "This is the original Medellin cartel, 3,500 years ago," he said in a joking reference to the violent Colombian cocaine cartel.
It seems more likely, however, that the ancient trade was run by respected healers rather than violent drug lords.
"We know for sure these things were used for medical purposes," Zias said. "The question is whether they were used for recreational purposes."
In an archaeologically rich area of central Israel, Zias found another clue. While excavating a tomb from the late Roman period in the town of Beit Shemesh 10 years ago, he found the skeleton of a 14-year-old girl who died in childbirth around 390 A.D. On her stomach was a fleck of a burnt brownish, black substance.
"I thought it was incense," Zias said. But when he had it analyzed by police and chemists at Hebrew University, it turned out to be a seven gram mixture of hashish, dried seeds, fruit and common reeds.
Seven glass vessels containing traces of the drug were found near the skeleton. She probably used them to inhale the smoky cocktail to aid her delivery. Medical researchers have found that other than relaxing the user, hashish increases the force and frequency of contractions in women giving birth; and it was used in deliveries until the 19th century, after which new drugs were developed.
But it didn't help this girl, who was only 4 feet 6 inches tall. She bled to death.
The drug was an extremely rare find. Organic compounds quickly decay, but because this one had been burned it was carbonized and preserved.
"It's the first time it's ever been found in terms of direct evidence in an archaeological dig," Zias said. "You rarely find direct evidence of drugs in antiquity."