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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bronze Age Stoners Used Hash, Opium

JERUSALEM -- A thriving Bronze Age drug trade supplied narcotics to ancient cultures throughout the eastern Mediterranean as a balm for the pain of childbirth and disease, proving a sophisticated knowledge of medicines dating back thousands of years, researchers say.

Ancient ceramic pots, most of them nearly identical in shape and about 13 centimeters long, have been found in tombs and settlements throughout the Middle East, dating as far back as 1,400 B.C., said Joe Zias, an anthropologist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. When turned upside down, the thin-necked vessels resemble opium poppy pods.

The drugs were probably used as medicine and the finds are helping researchers understand how ancient people treated illness and disease.

"It's a window to the past that many people are unaware of," Zias told a recent conference in Israel on DNA and archaeology. "Here's something used in prehistoric times and it's used until today."

Based on Egyptian medical writings from the third millennium B.C., researchers believe opium and hashish -- a smokable drug that comes from the concentrated resin from the flowers of hemp plants -- were used during surgery and to treat aches and pains and other ailments. Hashish was also used to ease menstrual cramps and was even offered to women during childbirth.

The drugs are part of a medical record that shows the ancients were far more advanced than most people realize, Zias said, noting evidence that European people performed cranial surgery as long as 10,000 years ago, while the Romans left records of 120 surgical procedures.

Mark Spigelman, a colleague of Zias at Hebrew University, found one of the poppy-shaped ceramic pots from the middle Bronze Age in Siqqura, a Giza cemetery near the pyramids outside Cairo. The pot, found in an 18th Egyptian Dynasty grave, was identical to other pots found throughout ancient Israel and the Middle East.

"We know for sure these things were used for medical purposes," Zias said. "The question is whether they were used for recreational purposes."

In an archaeologically rich area of central Israel, Zias found another clue. While excavating a tomb from the late Roman period in the town of Beit Shemesh 10 years ago, he found the skeleton of a 14-year-old girl who died in childbirth around A.D. 390. On her stomach was a fleck of a burnt, brownish black substance.

"I thought it was incense," Zias said. But when he had it analyzed by police and chemists at Hebrew University, it turned out to be a 7-gram mixture of hashish, dried seeds, fruit and common reeds.

Medical researchers have found that other than relaxing the user, hashish increases the force and frequency of contractions in women giving birth and was used in deliveries until the 19th century.