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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:5, Winter 2020

Strata: High Offerings

Some incense is higher than others. At the site of Arad in ancient Judah, archaeologists have found traces of frankincense and cannabis on two altars within an eighth-century B.C.E. temple (see reconstruction at Arad, shown here). Not only is this the earliest discovery of cannabis in southwestern Asia, but it is also the earliest attestation of hallucinogenic materials in ancient Judah. Further, it marks the first time that frankincense residue has been identified in an archaeological context within ancient Israel or Judah.

The two altars were discovered in the mid-1960s, but archaeologists only recently conducted a residue analysis on them.1 Their results showed that the larger altar bore traces of frankincense mixed with animal fat. The smaller altar, however, bore traces of cannabis and animal dung. Dried versions of both animal products were typically included in offerings to help the plant materials burn and evaporate.

It is striking that each altar bears evidence of only one specific incense. The archaeologists offer two possible explanations for this: Either the altars were thoroughly cleaned between uses leaving only the most recently incinerated substance on each, or each substance was poured repeatedly on a predetermined altar.

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