Israeli researchers have analyzed organic residues from two altars of the 8th century BC shrine at the Biblical fortress of Arad and found that one of them contained frankincense that was mixed with animal fat for evaporation; on the other altar, cannabis substance was mixed with animal dung to enable its mild heating.
The fortress mound of Tel Arad was excavated in the 1960s by Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologists.
The excavations revealed two superimposed fortresses, dated from the 9th to the early 6th centuries BC, which guarded the Judahite kingdom’s southern border.
Archaeologists unearthed numerous significant finds, including a large number of Hebrew ostraca and a well-preserved Judahite shrine.
They also found two limestone altars at the entrance to the ‘holy of holies’ of the shrine.
“The Arad shrine was in use for merely half a century (from 760/750 to ca. 715 BC) and the stone altars may have been in use for a shorter period of a decade or two,” said lead author Dr. Eran Arie, a researcher in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and colleagues.
The smaller altar is 40 cm high and about 20 x 20 cm at the top; the larger is about 50 cm high and 30 x 30 cm at the top. An unidentified black solidified material was preserved on the altars’ upper surfaces.
Dr. Arie and co-authors submitted this material for organic residue analysis at two unrelated laboratories.
“On the smaller altar, residues of cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol and cannabinol were detected, along with an assortment of terpenes and terpenoids, suggesting that cannabis inflorescences had been burnt on it,” they said.
“Organic residues attributed to animal dung were also found, suggesting that the cannabis resin had been mixed with dung to enable mild heating.”
“The larger altar contained an assemblage of indicative triterpenes such as boswellic acid and norursatriene, which derives from frankincense.”
The discovery of cannabis on the smaller altar was a surprise for the team.
“Arad provides the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East,” the researchers said.
“Hallucinogenic substances are known from various neighboring cultures, but this is the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah.”
“Although frankincense is well-known as one of the key components of Biblical incense, it has not yet been scientifically identified in a Levantine archaeological context,” they added.
“The presence of frankincense at Arad indicates the existence of South Arabian trade that took place under the patronage of the Assyrian empire as early as the 8th century BC.”
“Historical and Biblical texts demonstrate that the use of frankincense was varied and that it was utilized both in the public and private spheres. Arad presents the earliest known identification of frankincense in a clear cultic context.”
“Frankincense is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burned in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma.”
The team’s paper was published in the Tel Aviv, Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
Eran Arie et al. 2020. Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad. Tel Aviv, Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 47 (1): 5-28; doi: 10.1080/03344355.2020.1732046
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