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Traces of Opium in Jug Indicate Flourishing Ancient Drug Trade

June 2, 1986

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Discovery of opium traces in the clay of a vase made in Cyprus 3,500 years ago suggests that ancient merchants conducted a flourishing drug trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Dozens of small clay vases archaeologists call Base Ring juglets, dating from 1600-1100 B.C., have been unearthed at sites in Egypt and Syria.

Their distinctive shape, resembling an upside-down poppy head, gave rise to theories that the vases were designed as opium containers.

″The juglet I tested had four vertical stripes in relief on the body. They appeared to imitate the incisions you make in an unripe opium poppy capsule to allow the white latex to ooze out,″ John Evans, a British chemist who conducted the investigation, said in a weekend interview.

Small shards from the juglet were crushed, then treated with solvents to isolate organic substances trapped in the clay.

″Physical deposits contained in ancient vases, like oils and resins, percolate into the fabric of the clay and remain there indefinitely,″ said Evans, a professor at North East London Polytechnic.

The pulverized clay yielded just enough resin to be visible on a pinhead, he said, but sophisticated testing methods now enable researchers to identify complex chemical mixes from minute samples.

Chemicals extracted from the juglet were analyzed first with infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers. Evans said more tests using gas and high performance liquid chromatography, which can identify one part in a billion, confirmed the presence of both opium and olive oil.

″What we don’t know is whether the pot held a tincture of opium suspended in olive oil, or whether it was simply used again as an oil container,″ he said.

Ancient merchants often recycled clay containers used to ship such goods as wine, oil, myrrh and frankincense around the Mediterranean.

Tests on other juglets may indicate whether they contained a concentrated form of opium, possibly for use in religious rituals, or a milder solution intended for medical purposes, Evans said.

A clay statuette from the same period of a goddess with opium poppy images decorating her headdress was found in a shrine on the island of Crete. Some scholars believe the islanders used opium, marijuana and hashish in sacred rites.

According to ancient Egyptian medical texts, opium was popular as a sedative for wounded warriors and a remedy for scalp diseases. The modern drug morphine is extracted from the opium poppy.

An Australian expert on Cypriot pottery, Robert Merrillees, has noted that juglets often were placed in children’s tombs in Egypt and suggests that a mixture of opium and honey was used as an infant pacifier.

Merrillees believes potters in Cyprus modeled the juglets on the opium poppy capsule to make their contents easily recognizable in foreign markets.

The opium poppy is thought to have originated in Anatolia. It grows throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

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