During the Bronze Age, a complex network of trade and political alliances connected what are today the countries of Egypt, Israel, Greece, Lebanon and the island of Cyprus. Elites sent each other gifts accompanied by letters containing greetings and descriptions of the packages.
A common gift was a small jug, or juglet, as the scholars who study this time period call them. In 1962, then graduate student Robert Merrillees noticed that their shape was similar to a poppy seed and concluded that the juglets might have contained opium.
Although for many years this theory found widespread acceptance, it is not without its flaws.
First, scholars point out that there is no mention of opium in writings from the period.
Second, after testing some of the juglets for opium, there was no sign of the substance at all.
The sole exception to this is a juglet of unknown origin that tested positive for opium in 1996. This study’s results were inconclusive at the time, because the juglet’s origin was unclear.
A new chemical analysis of a juglet from the British Museum, however, might finally vindicate Merrillees’ theory. Researchers from the University of York and the British Museum used a method that differentiates between the different alkaloids produced by opium.
There are over 40 of these alkaloids, but the five most important ones are morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine and noscapine.
The researchers looked for evidence of thebaine and papaverine instead of morphine, since they preserve much better.
First, they drilled a hole through the base of the juglet and removed a sample with a needle. They extracted a thick, dark brown liquid. Analysis of this residue showed that it was an oil, but not precisely what kind of oil.
They demonstrated that at least one of these juglets contained the alkaloids papaverine and thebaine.
However, since poppyseed oil, when tested, can also leave traces of opium alkaloids, papaverine and thebaine could also prove the juglets had oil in them.
In fact, numerous paintings from Egypt, a frequent destination for the juglets, show people using them to pour a liquid over their bodies, probably an oil.
However, some of these pictures also show people drinking some kind of liquid from them. They certainly suggest a link between the juglets and their use in rituals that involve intoxicants or psychoactive substances like opium.
The Written Evidence
While there aren’t written references to opium in the middle east, Greek literature does mention the poppy plant.
In book eight of the Iliad, Homer describes someone who has just been hit by an arrow as bending his head to one side “like a poppy in a garden” heavy with rain.
The Odyssey also contains a possible reference to opium. In book four, Helen of Troy mixes wine with a drug that causes “forgetfulness of every ill.”
These tantalizing passages still don’t prove there was opium in the juglets, especially considering they were written around 700 B.C.E., long after the Bronze Age.
If we instead read the Bronze Age letters that likely accompanied the juglets, we can get a more realistic picture of what the jugs contained. In a letter sent from a king in Cyprus to the Pharaoh sometime in the middle of the 14th century B.C.E., the king says he is sending a jug “full of sweet oil to be poured on your head.”
This letter supports the theory, endorsed by the authors of the new study, that the juglets contained poppyseed oil.
While the surprising discovery of opium alkaloids in the juglets reopens the debate about their contents, the precise nature of the ancient gifts remains a mystery.
Sources And Further Reading
- Bunimovitz, S. & Lederman, Z. (2016). Opium or oil? Late Bronze Age Cypriot Base Ring juglets and international trade revisited. Antiquity. 90 (354).
- Daley, J. Residue of Opium Poppy Found in Bronze Age Juglet. Smithsonian, October 5, 2018.
- Smith, R. K., et al. (2018). Detection of opium alkaloids in a Cypriot base-ring juglet. Analyst. 21 (143), 5127-5136.