In this excavation photo from Arad, two altars that had been buried are lying in their original position on the second stair. The standing stone behind was found face down (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, S.J. Schweig Collection, B96.0143 [p1666]).

We’ve heard of “high church” worship, the kind of liturgy that includes robes and processions and formal hymns with no one directing the music, maybe even the occasional scent of incense.

In a surprise finding, archaeologists have learned that some ancient Hebrews had their own version of “high shrine” worship.

The southern fortress town of Arad was an important military outpost guarding Judah’s southern border from the 9th and into the 6th centuries BCE. The site was excavated from 1962-67 under the primary leadership of Yohanan Ahironi. Unfortunately, there’s never been a full excavation report, but a number of significant finds have been publicized. These include a number of brief letters between military commanders written on potsherds (ostraca), and a well-preserved shrine.

The shrine, about 13 X 20 meters, consisted of a courtyard, a storage area, a main hall, and a small cella or “holy of holies” containing two small limestone altars and a carefully shaped “standing stone” (massebah) thought to represent the deity. A large altar of undressed stone, used for animal sacrifices, stood in the courtyard.

The shrine (sometimes called a temple in the literature) is of special interest because it existed during the same period as the first temple in Jerusalem, but wasn’t kosher. During the reign of Hezekiah, when the book of Deuteronomy was most likely written, there was an effort to centralize worship in Jerusalem and eliminate other shrines. There’s evidence that the shrine in Arad was dismantled about that time, with its two altars carefully laid down and buried, though it’s not certain whether this was due to Hezekiah’s reforms or to preserve it from advancing Assyrian troops.

Since Arad was a Judahite fortress, evidence suggests that the shrine was dedicated to Yahweh, despite the presence of the standing stone as a representative of deity. It was probably in use for about 50 years, around 760/750 to ca. 715 BCE.

A modern reconstruction of the shrine’s “holy of holies” in the Israel Museum, with stones brought from the original location in Arad. The two altars are in the foreground. Photo by the author, 2017.

The two small altars, along with two stone monoliths found in the cella, were transported to the newly constructed Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they were reconstructed for a popular exhibit in the archaeology wing. At first, both of the monoliths stood as twin representations of deity, perhaps male and female. When the shrine was relocated to a new wing during renovations from 2007-2010, the smaller monolith was built into the back wall in keeping with a more current interpretation of the finds.

But that’s boring for most readers, right? Here’s the interesting part: the two smaller limestone altars, generally thought to be incense altars, were shaped with a shallow depression on the top. Both had a mound of dark residue in the center. Aharoni reported that a chemical analysis was done in 1967, but with inconclusive results.

With better methods now available, researchers took sterile samples of the dark material from both altars and sent them to two independent labs for analysis. Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry were used to determine the chemical composition of the organic residue on the altars, and the findings were recently reported in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, Vol. 47, 2020, Issue 1.

And what did they find? Without going into the detailed chemical analysis, what they found on the larger altar was consistent with frankincense mixed with animal fat, precisely the sort of incense you’d expect to find in a shrine. The smaller altar brought the surprise: cannabinoids were prominent in the residue, along with compounds expected from burning dried animal dung. The only natural source of cannabinoids is — cannabis.

Nobody uses marijuana because it smells good. That means the priests in Arad were not only burning marijuana — probably in the form of a dried resin from the cannabis plant (hashish) that was imported along with the frankincense — but they knew how to mix the resin with dried dung so it would burn at the lower temperature necessary to release its psychoactive compounds and have the desired effect — giving new meaning to the term “high priest.”

Who knew?


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