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On An Ancient Trade…

It’s official! Drugs used to exist in ancient times. In the past, we traced opium and other drugs in artists’ works, ancient manuscripts, literatures and mythology. However, there was no concrete evidence of its existence. Recently, the archaeologists have found the chemical evidence of ancient drugs.
Scientists at the York University of Canada and British Museum have found traces of opiates preserved inside a 3,500-year-old jug. Dr Rachel Smith from the university said that the late Bronze Age base-ring juglet and its contents still remain intact. Previously, the scientists thought that the jugs had been containers for opium. However, Dr Smith stressed that they used a new technique to detect a plant compound related to it. The scientist claimed that it’s the first chemical evidence of the opium poppy within such a jug.

3,500-year-old container

The discovery has prompted the archaeologists to think about the findings in a different way. They are of the opinion that the preserved opiates proved the existence of drug trade in ancient time. Dr Smith insisted: “It’s not opium itself we’ve found, the jug is 3,500 years old. So, whatever was in there is degraded. We’ve certainly got a link to poppies through the alkaloid I found. I was able to find traces of an opium alkaloid called papaverine.
Meanwhile, the scientists believe that the newly-discovered liquid was not intended to use as drug or medicine. Most probably, it was used as body oil. They assume that the jug and the liquid, preserved inside it, were used between 1650 BC and 1350 BC. Dr Smith explained that opiate alkaloids were the most resistant to degradation. In fact, the use of opiate alkaloids as pain-killer was very popular ahead of the discovery of morphine and other modern pain-killers. We can easily find the reference of opiate alkaloids in ancient manuscripts.
The two Greek Gods – Nyx (the God of Night) and his son Hypnos (the God of Sleep) – have been found with opium seeds in various ancient Greek sculptures and paintings. The existence of the opiate seeds has also been found in the ancient coins of Cyclades Islands. It is clearly mentioned in the ancient Greek literatures that Hades used opium while kidnapping Persephone (the Greek goddess of vegetation) in order to get rid of her mother Demeter.

Nyx & Hypnos

It has also been mentioned in ancient Greek literatures that opium juice can be used as sleep aid, but an overdose can cause death. Pedanius Dioscorides – the Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist and author of De Materia Medica – was aware of the use of opium as medicine. Theophrastus – the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school who was popularly known as the Father of Botany – believed that painless death could be possible by consuming Hemlock and opium juice together.
John Scarborough, an expert in ancient medicine, once said that Hemlock had a special recipe and Hemlock or opium had helped the people, living on the Greek island of Chios, live long. The reference of a deadly drug can also be found in the Bible’s Passage of Death. Even in New Testament, it has been mentioned that a special type of resin and wine can be consumed together. The Tertullians in northern Africa were well aware of the use of toxin and wine in 3rd AD. In ancient period, even alcohol was used as a pain relief. The ancient Greek doctors didn’t forget to mention in their writings that opium was injurious to health.


Still, the trade of opium and other drugs flourished in ancient period. Dr Smith and her colleagues are trying hard to enrich us with more information about the trade in the coming days.

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