One of the most startling shifts of the past 150 years is the extent to which we can treat and alleviate pain. Got a headache? Muscle soreness after a trip to the gym? Menstrual cramps? There’s an over-the-counter medication for that. Something more serious? There’s a cluster of controlled substances that can numb the pain of surgery. The ability to live pain-free is a true modern marvel. People in the past were less fortunate: they did not have access to the medicine cabinet full of highly processed remedies that make minor aches and pains a thing of the past. But they did have opiates, and, now, archaeologists in the UK believe that they have discovered the first chemical evidence for the ancient drug trade.
Scientists based at the University of York and the British Museum analyzed the residue found inside a small late Bronze Age jug from Cyprus and discovered the presence of opium alkaloids. The “base-ringed juglet” owned by the British Museum had long been assumed to be connected to the opium trade because the head of the jug, like other similar examples from the region, resembles the poppy flower. This was very much a “best-guess,” however, and it was not until Professor Jane Thomas-Oates of the University of York was able to analyze the contents of the jug that the suspicion was confirmed. The discovery offers evidence that there was a flourishing trade in opium in the Eastern Mediterranean as long as 3,600 years ago.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the opiate jug was used to transport and preserve narcotics. The presence of oil residue in the jug suggests that, rather than containing pure opium, the jug held poppy seed oil or aromatic oils used for perfume or body oil. Even so, there are numerous literary and artistic sources that confirm that opium was known to ancient physicians.
In the first place there’s the iconography of the poppy in the ancient world. A number of ancient Greek gods associated with sleep—most prominently, Hypnos (Sleep) and Nyx (Night) – are portrayed adorned with poppies. The use of poppies as a kind of sleeping aid is found in mythological stories. According to legend, when Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld, her grief-struck mother Demeter consumed poppies in an effort to sleep. The poppy became one of her emblems and appears on ancient coins from the Cyclades.
The soporific qualities of opium were well known by ancient doctors. One, Dioscorides, wrote that when poppy juice was consumed it would cause sleep and take away pain but warns his readers that too much could induce a coma and even death. Aristotle describes it simply as a hypnotic drug but others, like Hippocrates and Galen, provide us with detailed descriptions about different kinds of poppy, the use of seeds and juice, and the techniques by which medications could be manufactured.
This leads us to one of the most interesting uses of ancient narcotics: to ease the passage of death. According to the fourth-century BCE philosopher and “father of botany” Theophrastus, the Mantineian physician Thrasyas prescribed a combination of hemlock and poppy juice in order to produce a painless death. Poison was regularly used as a form of execution. The medical historian John Scarborough has suggested that the recipe for hemlock was well known by ancient Athenians. Apparently the people of the Island of Keos lived so long that they would end their lives by ingesting hemlock or poppies.
The use of end-of-life narcotics to ease the passage of death is found even in the Bible and among early Christians. According to the New Testament, Jesus was offered wine laced with myrrh during his crucifixion (Mark 15:23). There are a variety of possible interpretations as to why the wine had myrrh in it, but one is that the myrrh is meant to dull the pain of his slow death. Certainly there were early Christians who read the verse this way. The third-century North African Tertullian writes disapprovingly of an imprisoned Christian who was drugged up with doctored wine during his torture and death. Another Christian martyr-bishop named Fructuosus was offered “spiced” wine by his friends before his execution.
The dangers of poppy juice use were well recognized in ancient times. While there’s scant discussion of opiate addiction, ancient doctors were well aware that, used incorrectly, opium could cause a whole host of problems, most notably death. Perhaps it’s for this reason that wine (alcohol) was more commonly prescribed as a means of dulling pain.
What’s surprising about the recent discovery in the UK is that it demonstrates and confirms the existence of an ancient form of branding. Not only did these distinctive looking juglets contain poppy-based products, but the containers were deliberately fashioned in order to communicate their purpose. Whether or not the oils contained therein served an analgesic purpose, they are one of the earliest forms of pharmaceutical marketing.