Cannabis And Frankincense Discovered At Ancient "Holy Of Holies" Altar


The Holy of Holies illustrated in the 1890 Holman Bible. Public Domain

Resting atop two limestone altars located at the entrance of Israel’s “holy of holies” shrine are the black residual remains of cannabis and frankincense, indications that the herbs played an important role in the cult practices of the shrine more than 2,000 years ago.

Arad shrine at Tel Arad in the Beer-sheba Valley was first excavated half-a-century ago and has since revealed two fortresses that guarded the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah. Between the 6th and 9th centuries BCE, this region of modern Israel was at the heart of many biblical accounts of the ancient world. According to findings published in the journal Tel Aviv, it appears that the cannabis may have been used deliberately as a psychoactive to “stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies.” The cannabis was mixed with animal feces to aid heating, while the frankincense was mixed with animal fat to encourage evaporation.


"This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; Its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there,” said lead study author Eran Arie, from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in a statement.

To come to their conclusions, the researchers collected small samples of black materials previously found on each of the altars and conducted an analysis of the substances back in the lab. Each sample was ground to a powder in a porcelain mortar and pestle to extract lipids indicative of its substance.

Front view of the shrine at Arad, rebuilt in the Israel Museum. Two top squares show the black residue of cannabis and frankincense. Collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority © The Israel Museum/Laura Lachman.

The smaller altar was shown to contain cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as well as its byproduct cannabinol (CBN), all of which are only found in cannabis plants. Finding the activated THC and CBD on top of the altar suggests that cannabis was burned in the altar “conceivably as part of a ritual that took place in the shrine,” write the authors.

Located on the larger of the two altars is the residue of frankincense, which is native to Arabia, suggesting that the ancient people of Judah likely traded with Arabia earlier than previously thought. At Arad, it provides the earliest evidence of the resin for cult purposes and supports historical mention of frankincense reflected in the Bible where “its price is compared several times with that of gold and precious stones.” Together, the cannabis and frankincense residue represents the first incense from Iron Age Judah that have been successfully examined and – though the use of plant material for psychoactive or fragrant purposes is not new to the region – they help illuminate cult practices in biblical Judah.


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