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Opium Trade in the Bronze Age Levant

  • R. S. Merrillees

For some time now, there has been an increasing tendency amongst archaeologists to think of pottery vessels, not so much as the products of a human mind, which may reflect the many, varied factors which influenced their style of manufacture, but as impersonal objects which serve little more useful purpose than to fill out a complex typological classification. In our preoccupation with compiling these sequences to establish nothing more than the relative and absolute chronologies (vital though they are) of countries where literary records of an historical nature are lacking, we have begun to lose sight of the human element, which is, after all, a more basic constituent of pottery than clay or temper. I little expected, when I embarked on a study of the Cypriote Bronze Age pots found in Egypt, that they would lend themselves so readily to a revelation of the very human reasons which inspired their shapes, created a demand for their contents, and so brought about their exportation to Egypt. It is really to Mr H. W. M. Hodges, to whom I took my technical problems, that I owe the disclosure contained in this paper. Even more it was he who re-orientated my approach to the subject along far more personal lines, which has made the task of assembling and interpreting the data a most rewarding excursion into Levantine life during the Bronze Age.

One of the most interesting facts to emerge from even a cursory study of the Cypriote Base-ring I ware, which occurs in Egypt during the first half of the XVIIIth Dynasty, is the limited number of shapes involved.

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1 The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the other specialists to whom I am also indebted for much valued help and criticism: The Rev. Dr A. J. Arkell, Dr P. Åström, Mr M. B. Cookson, Mr D. M. Dixon, Miss J. du Plat Taylor, Mr G. A. Wainwright, and Dr V. Seton Williams. In particular I would like to thank Dr T. E. Wallis, whose generous co-operation has made it possible to reproduce illustrations of opium poppy capsules in the Museum of Pharmacognosy. Dr Arkell has given me permission to include information on the two Base-ring juglets in the Petrie Collection of Egyptian antiquities at University College, London. Mr Hodges’s knowledge and enthusiasm have been a constant source of inspiration. I should also like to thank Mr. J. B. Hennessy and Mr. J. D. O’Connor.

2 Erik Sjöqvist, Problems of the Late Cypriote Bronze Age (Stockholm, 1940), 32, Jug Type 2a.

3 Ibid., 32, Jug Type 2b.

4 Ibid., 36, Bottle Type 1.

5 Ibid., 36, Bottle Type 3.

6 Ibid., 28.

7 In contrast to the other fine wares being produced in the Levant at that time, the Base-ring wares were all hand-, not wheel-made. The Base-ring I pots in particular were usually extremely well modelled and finished.

8 Einar Gjerstad, Studies on Prehistoric Cyprus (Uppsala, 1926), 322.

9 Even today, when literacy in this country, for example, might be thought to have made such measures unnecessary, we have only to look through our cupboards to find objects which make analogies with Bronze Age usage irresistible. Who could mistake the nature of the contents inside a plastic vessel shaped like a lemon or a tomato?

10 Journal of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society, 1912-13, 35, n. 1; John L. Myres, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Handbook of the Cesnola Collection of Antiquities from Cyprus (New York, 1914), 36; Sjöqvist, op. cit., 37, 79; A. D. Trendall et al., Handbook to the Nicholson Museum, 2nd ed. (Sydney, 1948), 151 ; P. Dikaios, A Guide to the Cyprus Museum, 3rd ed. (Nicosia, 1961), 31.

11 T. J. Addens, The Distribution of Opium Cultivation and the Trade in Opium (1939), 11, 13.

12 Sami Gabra, ‘Papaver Species and Opium through the ages’, Bulletin de l’Institut d’Egypte, XXXVII, Fasc. 1, Session 1954-55 (Cairo, 1956), 48 ff.

13 R. Campbell Thompson, The Assyrian Herbal (London, 1924), 41 ff.; Idem, A Dictionary of Assyrian Botany (London, 1949), 223 ff.

14 Pan. G. Kritikos, ‘Der Mohn, das Opium und ihr Gebrauch im Spätminoicum III. Bemerkungen zu dem gefundenen Idol der minoischen Gottheit des Mohns’, Praktika tēs Akadēmias Athēnon, 35, Fasc. 1, 1960, 56 ff.

15 Ibid., 61 ff.

16 Ibid., 63.

17 George E. Post, Flora of Syria, Palestine and Sinai, vol. I, 2nd ed. (Beirut, 1932), 36.

18 Reno Muschler, A Manual Flora of Egypt, vol. I (Berlin, 1912), 377 f.

19 Jens Holmboe, Studies on the Vegetation of Cyprus (Bergen, 1914), 83.

20 I owe this brilliant observation to Miss Taylor.

21 Op. cit., 71.

22 Op. cit., 39 ff.

23 Kritikos, op. cit., 60 f.

24 Op. cit., 40.

25 Dr Åström has been kind enough to inform me that evidence of viticulture in Cyprus as early as the Early Cypriote II period has been provided by Dr Hans Helbaek’s recent identification of a grape seed impression in a bowl from a tomb he excavated at Kalopsidha. Dr Åström plans to publish this and other details in Excavations at Kalopsidha and Ayios Iakovos in Cyprus (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, vol. 11). Through the goodwill of interested chemists, tests are at present being carried out for me on the matter inside several Base-ring juglets from Egypt.

26 Op. cit., 43, 42 f, figs. 3 and 5.

27 Ibid., 43.

28 E. Schiaparelli, La Tomba Intatta dell’Architetto Cha nella Necropoli di Tebe (Turin, 1927), 154.

29 Ibid., 189.

30 Ibid., 155, fig. 138, bottom centre.

31 Op. cit., 42, fig. 4 = Theodore M. Davis’s Excavations: Bibân el Molûk. The Tomb of Siphtah; The Monkey Tomb and the Gold Tomb (London, 1908), plate. Gold Necklace of Queen Tauosrît.

32 W. M. Flinders Petrie, Amulets (London, 1914), 51, no. 271, pl. XLIII, 271.

33 Idem, Hyksos and Israelite Cities (London, 1906), 45, pl. XXXVIII, 7.

34 F. Ll. Griffith, ‘Oxford Excavations in Nubia’ in Liverpool Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology, X, 1923, 137, pl. LVIII, 10, 140, pl. LXIV, 8.

35 Op. cit., 40 f.

36 Ibid., 41, fig. 1 = Theodore M. Davis’s Excavations, op. cit., plates. Ceremonial Wig Ornaments of Queen Tauosrit.

37 Theodore M. Davis’s Excavations, op. cit., 36.

38 See, for example, the ones in Abydos Tomb D229 (T. Eric Peet and W. L. S. Loat, The Cemeteries of Abydos Part III. 1912-1913 (London, 1913), pl. XII, 8). The tomb dates to the end of the 16th or beginning of the 15th centuries B.C.

39 William C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt, Part II (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), 179.

40 Amulets, 3 x.

41 Op. cit., 50.

42 Mr G. A. Wainwright informs me that opium was still being used in Egypt for this very purpose in the early part of this century, before its cultivation was outlawed in 1914.

43 Op. cit., 54.

44 T. J. Addens, op. cit., 106.

45 Op. cit., 71.

Mr Merrillees is a Research Student in the Department of Egyptology, University College, London, working on Cypriote Bronze Age pottery found in Egypt.

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