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Oldest known use of narcotic opium discovered in ancient pots

And now we have morphine.

By Cassidy Ward
Opium vessels from Tel Yahud

Frank Lucas led the sort of life that would make a good movie. He was born in La Grange, North Carolina and the circumstances of his life conspired to turn him into one of the most successful drug smugglers of all time. Having moved to Harlem in the wake of the Vietnam War, Lucas realized that to really succeed, he’d need to dodge the existing drug connections in New York and forge his own. So, he traveled to Bangkok and linked up with some connections there. The idea was to cut out any unnecessary go-betweens and ferry heroin directly from Asia to the United States inside military service planes returning from Vietnam. Allegedly, heroin was even transported in the coffins of deceased military personnel, though that claim has been disputed.

If all of this sounds like the events of a crime blockbuster, that’s because it is. While Lucas was a real person with real criminal exploits, the events of his life were fictionalized in the 2007 crime film American Gangster.

In some ways, Frank Lucas’ story began with his birth in 1930, in other ways it started a few thousand years ago when people first started to experiment with opium, setting in motion a chain of events which would end with a conviction, witness protection, and a Hollywood blockbuster. Written historical records start to hint at the use of opium in some parts of the world several thousand years ago, but we lacked archaeological evidence of its use at that time. Now, scientists have found the oldest physical evidence of narcotic opium use, dating back to about 3,500 years ago.

Vanessa Linares from the Jacob M. Aldow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, and colleagues, recently described a collection of clay jugs and other containers found at Tel Yehud in Israel, with clear evidence they once contained narcotic opium. The findings were published in the journal Archaeometry.

“In 2017 there was a salvage excavation, and a cemetery was uncovered. There were eight vessels that had decomposition products of opium,” Linares told SYFY WIRE.

Those decomposition products were like a treasure map leading back to the oldest confirmed use of opium for narcotic effect. Linares explained that everything has unique chemical fingerprints which get left behind after contact. If you fill a jar with a liquid, some of the liquid’s chemical fingerprints will remain on the vessel. If someone were to show up quickly, they could easily confirm the presence of opium or fruit punch or whatever you were carrying, but over time those fingerprints break down. As they’re exposed to oxygen or other environmental factors, the chemical compounds left behind start to break down and change. That’s why they’re called decomposition products and they were what researchers were hoping to find.

The fact that it was opium they were looking for and not something else actually helped with the confirmation, because of opium’s unique decomposition products. There are some decomposition products which are produced by several different starting compounds. Finding one of those doesn’t necessarily confirm the specific substance you’re looking for. With opium, however, that isn’t the case. Over time, opium breaks down into morphinan and other subproducts. Those are products which only come from poppy plants, so finding them necessarily confirms the one-time presence of opium. There was another clue as well, in the form of the vessels themselves.

“The juglets look like inverted opium poppies and the decorations look like the scoring of an opium poppy… assuming most of the population at the time was illiterate, the design let them know what was in the vessel just by looking at the vessel itself,” Linares said.

It’s the look of the jars that initially sparked interest in studying them and advances in technology finally allowed for the residue analysis to confirm their prior contents. The precise ways in which the people of this area and time were using opium isn’t wholly known, but the nature of the vessels and the location they were found in give us some clues.

It’s believed that the jugs themselves were crafted in Cyprus, not locally in Tel Yehud. That’s probably where they were filled with opium as well, but that’s not where the poppy plants were grown. Instead, the presence of the opium jugs in Tel Yehud was only possible because of existing trade and commerce across the region. Researchers believe poppies were grown in Turkey before the opium was transported to Cyprus and placed in the signature vessels. Later, they would be transported to Tel Yehud, which was called Canaan at the time.

That the vessels were found in a grave with a body also hints at how opium might have been used. It may have been used as a way for living relatives to attempt communication with deceased loved ones by moving themselves into another state of awareness. It might also have been placed with the deceased as a grave offering, in the hope that it might help them to successfully travel from this life to the next.

“I believe it was also used for medicinal purposes. Morphine is helpful for anxiety, gives therapeutic sleep, and of course it’s also a hallucinogen. Right now, we’ve only identified it within a burial context, so we can only speak in that context, but I’m not taking anything off the table,” Linares said.

The archaeological evidence paints the picture not just of narcotic opium use, but also of its significant position within culture. Rather than a shameful secret, opium use was special, something to be memorialized and remembered both in life and in death. Has there ever been a higher fall from grace, from important ritualistic use in custom-made containers to society’s seedy criminal underbelly? It’s almost enough to make you feel bad for the poppy plant.