Cannabis was used for religious rites at a biblical site in Israel, study finds

Shown here is a view of the Canaanite city ruins in the lower area of the Tel Arad archaeological site, Israel.

(CNN)If there were any more fun facts to learn about cannabis, its ritualistic use at a biblical site in Israel can now be added to the list.

In 1963, two limestone altars were found at the entrance to the "Holy of Holies" of a Judahite shrine at Beersheba Valley, in Israel's Tel Arad, an archaeological mound located west of the Dead Sea and surrounded by mountain ridges known as the Arad Plain.
The site is divided into a lower city and an upper hill. Inside the site, there is a shrine devoted to Yahweh, the Hebrew name of God used in the Bible.
    Analysis of the materials on two altars, now housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, found they contained cannabis and frankincense, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Tel Aviv.
      This is the frontal view of the cella of the shrine at Arad, as rebuilt in the Israel Museum from original archaeological finds.
      This is the first time that physical evidence of cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East, according to the study authors.
      "We know from all around the Ancient Near East and around the world that many cultures used hallucinogenic materials and ingredients in order to get into some kind of religious ecstasy," said lead author Eran Arie, curator of Iron Age and Persian Periods archaeology in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
      "We never thought about Judah taking part in these cultic practices. The fact that we found cannabis in an official cult place of Judah says something new about the cult of Judah," Arie said. The study's finding regarding frankincense also provided further insight into the ingredients used in Jerusalem incense, he added.
        Several other cultures, such as the Gaddi tribe of the Himalayas, the Buganda kingdom of Africa and the Tenetehara of Brazil, have used cannabis recreationally and for ecstasy in cultic ceremonies, according to previous studies.
        Some tribes also used cannabis for medicinal purposes, the study said. A 1993 study on the materials on the remains of a teenage girl who died during labor in an ancient cave in Jerusalem found cannabis was likely used to reduce childbirth pain.
        "What stands out most to me is that cannabis was used in concert with frankincense, rather than being mixed with frankincense or other identifiable plant products," said Robert C. Clarke, an independent ethnobotanical researcher who was not part of the study. "This implies that there were special independent connotations assigned to the use of each plant substance."

        History of a biblical site

        Tel Arad was excavated between 1962 and 1967 by the late archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
        Excavations revealed two superimposed, squared fortresses that dated back to the ninth to early sixth centuries BCE and guarded the Judahite kingdom's southern border. More finds were unearthed, including Hebrew ostracas (stones with writings) and the shrine.
        The Arad shrine was discovered after Aharoni discovered a cella, a small room holding cult objects. The shrine is located in the northwestern corner of the fortress and is about 42 feet across and 62 feet deep. It holds four areas: a fenced-in open courtyard; a storage area north of the courtyard; a main hall west of the courtyard and storerooms; and a small cella west of the main hall.
        Previous research suggested the shrine was built and used from around 750 BCE to 715 BCE, less than half a century. Around this time, Judah was mostly comprised of rural settlements. The cella was considered to be the heart of the shrine, thus called "Holy of Holies."