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Biblical Pot Dealer

Scientists found weed at an ancient altar from biblical times. A sanctuary called the “Holy of Holies” offers “the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East.”

The Kingdom of Judah, an Iron Age civilization centered around Jerusalem, features prominently in the Hebrew Bible, distinguishing it as a site of widespread cultural enchantment.

But now, archaeologists have serendipitously solved a mystery that has probably never been broached in any Sunday school class: Yes, some Judahites deliberately inhaled cannabis vapor, and yes, they likely did so to get high.

This incredible find is the result of chromatographic studies of residue found on an altar that dates back to the 8th century BCE. The results represent “the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah” and “the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East,” according to the journal Tel Aviv.

“Our cannabis evidence is the earliest in our region,” study co-lead Eran Arie, curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology at The Israel Museum, confirmed in an email. The discovery “was naturally a huge surprise,” he added.

The limestone altar that preserved this charred cannabis was found in the “Holy of Holies,” a sacred space at Tel Arad, an ancient fortress in Israel’s Beer-sheba Valley. Excavations at Tel Arad began in the 1960s, and the odd altar residue was sampled at that time, but tests of its chemical content proved inconclusive. The Holy of Holies was transported to The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it has been a main attraction for decades.

Arie and Dvory Namdar, a senior research fellow at the Volcani Center of Agricultural Research who co-led the study, decided it was high time to reanalyze the residue with more precise modern techniques. In addition to identifying the cannabis remains, the team also tested residue found on top of a taller altar in the shrine, which turned out to be frankincense.

So who was the pot dealer for the Kingdom of Judah? It’s a challenging question given the unprecedented nature of the find.

“[T]o date we don't have any information about the way cannabis could arrive at Arad in general or Judah in particular,” Arie said. “However, since we know frankincense came from South Arabia (modern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia), theoretically these regions could have been used as trade agencies of cannabis.”

“Only future finds will help in solving these riddles,” he added. So, for now, the mysterious biblical pot dealer will be able to continue to evade the long arm of the law.


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