Narcotic use – and abuse – is a tradition that may be older than humanity itself. Ancient civilizations used tobacco, sniffed cannabis, and even invented the original beer pong in massive, institutionalized orgies. And now, thanks to a new analysis technique used by researchers at the University of York and the British Museum, we can also add a thriving opiate trade to our ancestors' rap sheet.
Between 1650 and 1350 BCE, distinctively shaped vessels known as base-ring juglets were traded extensively throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, but researchers have long puzzled over what they were actually used for.
Since the early 1960s, archaeologists have hypothesized that the juglets were used to transport opiates. Like the classic diner ketchup bottle, the theory went, the vessels were shaped like their cargo: the juglets seemed to resemble the seed head of an opium poppy. But analysis of the containers never turned up physical evidence of the narcotic, and this led to the idea losing popularity in recent years.
"Opinion was swaying to say, ‘Oh, maybe they weren’t used for opium.’ So this is bringing the debate full circle," British Museum scientist Rebecca Stacey told The Times. "It’s reopening the debate."
The researchers were able to make the new discovery thanks to one particular vessel housed in the British Museum. This juglet had been kept sealed, preserving the contents and providing a rare opportunity to investigate what it might once have been used for.
Although initial analysis by scientists at the Museum had hinted that the juglet contained traces of opium alkaloids, their presence could not be confirmed until Rachel Smith, a PhD student (now doctor) from the University of York, developed a brand new analysis technique using instruments from the university's Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry.
According to The Times, after drilling a hole into the base of the 15-centimeter (6-inch) juglet, the researchers discovered traces of papaverine and thebaine – two of the more stable opiate alkaloids – which had survived inside the container for around 3,500 years.
"The particular opiate alkaloids we detected are ones we have shown to be the most resistant to degradation," explained Dr Smith in a statement.
"[This] makes them better targets in ancient residues than more well-known opiates such as morphine."
But the researchers point out that this doesn't mean Bronze Age society was struggling with its own crisis in opioid abuse.
"We found the alkaloids in degraded plant oil, so the question as to how opium would have been used in this juglet still remains," Dr Smith said. "Could it have been one ingredient amongst others in an oil-based mixture, or could the juglet have been re-used for oil after the opium or something else entirely?"
Despite years of archaeological speculation, this is the first time that reliable chemical evidence has been found conclusively linking the juglets to opiate use. After this success, the researchers hope in the future to be able to use this technique to discover less well-preserved residues in the vessels – and to hopefully shed light on what the opiates were used for all those years ago.
"It is important to remember that this is just one vessel, so the result raises lots of questions about the contents of the juglet and its purpose," Dr Stacey explained. "[But] the presence of the alkaloids here is unequivocal and lends a new perspective to the debate about their significance."