“Cypriot juglet theory”: a review

Based on R.S. Merrillees (1962) paper, many researches have focused on the hypothesis that base-ring juglets produced in Cyprus and found in several location in Eastern Mediterranean at Late Bronze age (LBA, 1650-1350 BCE) would be used for the transport and the trade of the opium.

For the last twenty years, to test the Merrillees’ hypothesis, organic residue analyses (ORA) have been carried out on archaeological vessels from Cyprus, Egypt and South Levant. What do these organic residues tell us? Do archaeobotanical evidence support the pattern that makes the Eastern Mediterranean basin a key area in the diffusion of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE?


Introduction to the “Cypriot Juglet Theory”

Origin and typology of Base-Ring Juglets

At the beginning of the Late Cypriot period (c. 1650 BCE), the island of Cyprus experiences a series of significant transformations: traditional villages and their burial grounds are abandoned, new settlements are established on the coastal plains, household production finally gives way to craft specialism and a variety of new ceramic wares is introduced. Among them, is the Base-Ring Ware, a specific pottery production that originated from the Ovgos Valley, in Northwestern Cyprus.

Relying on shape and decoration, three phases of development of the ware were distinguished by the Swedish archaeologist P. Aström (1972): Proto Base-Ring, Base-Ring I and Base-Ring II. Petrographic analysis by S. J. Vaughan resulted in the identification of three distinct regional groups representing overlapping areas of manufacture (Vaughan 1991). Interestingly, these ceramics are homogeneous both in form and decoration, implying a high degree of communication between the potters of the different regions. The repertoire of shapes is constituted by juglets, zoomorphic vessels and high-quality tableware. Cypriot Base-Ring juglets are characterised by a funnel mouth, a conical neck, an ovoid body and a ring base. A strap handle is attached at the superior part of the neck and on the shoulder of the juglet. All of them are handmade and the lower extremity of the handle is, as a rule, inserted through the wall of the vessel, according to a typical Cypriot technic.

Distribution of Cypriot Base-Ring juglets
Figure 1. Indicative map of distribution of Cypriot Base-Ring juglets in the Eastern Mediterranean (conception and DAO: S. Vilain, CNRS)

Circulation of Base-Ring Juglets in Eastern Mediterranean

Located at the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean, at a short sailing distance from the costs of Cilicia1 (60 km) and the Levant (180 km), Cyprus can be considered as a “connected island”. Early crossings to and from the mainland are suggested by the discovery of exotica2 in fishermen’s camps near Cape Graeco, dated to c. 10,000 BCE.  However, it is only during the 17th century BCE that regular and organised exchanges developed between Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean when the development of the bronze technology led to a dramatic increase in need for copper and tin. Cyprus, where copper ores were exploited since the Chalcolithic, quickly became part of a broader Mediterranean trading network. Cypriot ceramics were likely travelling alongside copper oxhide ingots, which likely constituted the main purpose of the transactions. Nevertheless, Cypriot pottery productions seem to have been progressively appreciated for themselves, valued for their aesthetic and their content. Cypriot Base-Ring juglets, especially, widely circulated within the Eastern Mediterranean from the 16th to the 13th c. BCE (Fig. 1).

In Egypt, during the New Kingdom (ca. 1500-1000 BCE), they are closely associated with middle class burials, whereas in the Levant they are attested both in domestic and funerary contexts. The high value of the juglet’s content, the exact nature of which is still discussed, might explain not only this broad distribution, but also why Cypriot Base-Ring juglets were imitated and even transposed in precious raw materials, such as stone and glass

Fig. 2. Glass transposition of a Cypriot Base-Ring I juglet, H. 9.3 cm, Egypt, 18th Dynasty, British Museum (EA 22819) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Summary of Merrillees’ paper

How did the hypothesis that these juglets were used in the opium trade arise? The funding article was published in 1962, when R.S. Merrillees was still a PhD student at the Department of Egyptology at University College London. The main purpose of the paper was to understand why juglets (Base-ring I and II) were exported from Cyprus to Egypt during the LBA. According to the author, there would be three potential reasons to this exportation

their ornamental asset, their intrinsic usefulness, or their content

Merrillees 1962: 288

Although the author agreed that all three reasons could be regarded, the type of content was, from his point of view, the most convincing one, arguing that the juglets had an important commercial value in the past. Thus, he supposed that the shape of the juglet could have quickly informed (the purchaser and the consumer) about the content of the vase, which would facilitate its commercial promotion between countries that do not speak and write the same language. Moreover, he wrote that, in addition of the small size of the pots, the fact that Egyptians continued, despite the change of juglets shape (type I to II), to be in demand of these products would be in favor of a desirable and valuable product for the Egyptian market. Then, R.S.  Merrillees stated that the juglet content should be an opium-based liquid, on the one hand because of the narrow neck allowing only the passage of a liquid substance and, on the other hand, because of its morphological resemblance (size and outlines) with a poppy capsule. Other similarities were advanced by the author: the vertical belts, painted and later on in relief, present on some juglet bodies could refer to the incisions used to extract the latex (see also: Merrillees 1968); the pot color was closed to the one of desiccated opium poppy capsule. To justify his point, he stated that references to opium were numerous in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia (Assyria) and in the Greek and Roman world, in the Mediterranean and the Near-East. He fixed the introduction of opium in Egypt to the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BCE).

He mentioned several other contemporary and posterior Egyptian manufactured objects (faience, bead, gold earrings) whose shapes suggest a poppy head, indicating that the plant was familiar to the Egyptians from that time on. He also referred to an opium (and iron)-base oil would have been found in an alabaster jar in the tomb of the architect Cha (or Kha) who believe to have died in 1405 BCE (Bisset et al. 1996) at the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep III (ca.1410-1350 BCE).

Scientific implications of Merrillees’ hypothesis

The hypothesis formulated above has been discussed several times by Merrillees (1968; 1974; 1979) in additional publications. The so called “Cypriot juglet theory” has been taken up by several authors for more than 50 years,  without, however, all adhering to the idea that the form of the juglet indicates its content, i.e. opium (Merlin 1984:251–260; Bisset et al. 1996; Nencini 2022). Numerous figures have been produced in literature showing a juglet backed by an inverted opium poppy capsule (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: A, Base Ring I, height: 13.7cm (Merrillees 1962: fig. plate XLII); B, Base Ring II, height 15.85cm (Merrillees 1962: fig. plate XLIII); C, Scale 12 cm (Bisset et al. 1996: fig. 2).

Contribution of organic chemical analysis

Short introduction

If the juglet shape can indeed suggests a reversed poppy seed capsule, the shape does not necessarily infer its content nature and more broadly of its function (i.e. trade product). However, little direct archaeological or textual data can give clue to identify the juglets content or the one of other archaeological vessels, whether produced in Cyprus, Egypt and the Southern Levant in the Late Bronze Age. Developed in the 1950-60s, chemical analysis of organic residues (ORA) is now a well-known disciplinary field in archaeology, and is a crucial discipline for addressing these issues.

ORA aims to identify the molecular composition of several types of deposits trapped in pottery and other ceramic during their use to highlight their function in the past (Evershed 2008; Historic England 2017). Surface residues are sampled and analyzed following a rigorous protocol. A wide variety of organic residues can be identified (e.g. vegetable oils, animal fats, resins, waxes). The separation and identification of the chemical component, or group of components, is based on the coupling of gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS).

For the past 20 years, ORA have been carried out on archaeological material including Base-Ring Juglets to test the functional use of juglets and, more broadly, to support the hypothesis of opium trade in the Eastern Mediterranean during the LBA.

A longstanding search

Numerous studies have been conducted in an attempt to identify the presence of opium-based products in juglets imported from Cyprus (Koschel 1996; Bisset et al. 1996; Chovanec, Bunimovitz, and Lederman 2015; Smith et al. 2018; Linares et al. 2022; see also Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012:14).

First studies that seem to rely on modern analytical tools (e.g., GC-MS) date back to the mid-1990s. In this publication, Bisset et al. (1996) aimed to verify the detection of alkaloids in the vessels found in the tomb of Kha, attributed to the 18th dynasty and published by I. Muzio, 70 years earlier (Muzio 1925, in Bisset et al. 1996). Not being able to rely on the same material as the latter, Bisset et al. took other vessels collected during the excavations that took place at the very beginning of the twentieth century AD and preserved at the Museo della Antichità Egizie, in Turin (Italy).  The analyses did not allow the detection of any alkaloids of opium poppy in any of the six artefacts taken into account. Koschel’s analysis (1996), on the other hand, although not very detailed, seems to present positive results that some specialists consider as the only convincing study until the 2010’s (Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012:15). More recently, other attempts have been made to confirm the “Cypriot juglet theory” including experimental approaches consisting in artificial aging of either opium or cold-pressed poppy oil to understand the alkaloids taphonomy (Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012; Smith et al. 2018).

Some ambivalent results

Several methodological advances have thus been underlined. Firstly, morphine has very little resistance to aging, that is to say that it is not the alkaloid to look for in priority although it is the most abundant in the plant (Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012). Secondly, papaverine seems to be the most appropriate alkaloid to look for, to detect the presence of opium in archaeological vessels. Nevertheless, this alkaloid appeared to have contaminated analytical tools and its research requires consequent efforts to avoid any cross-contamination (Smith et al. 2018). Finally, the study of several vessels from funerary context at LBA Tel Yehud (Israel) and sampled as soon as they were excavated, detected opioid decomposition products, including morphine, in several jugs and juglets type vessels but also in storage jars (Linares et al. 2022). The last is explained by the authors proposing that jars were used to store oil products in first intention, oil that was then poured into jug and juglets for immediate use in medical, ritual or other practices (Linares et al. 2022:14). Furthermore, regarding the experimental study that points to a bad resistance of morphine over time (Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012), Linares et al. (2022) explained its preservation in jars by the fact that this alkaloid could be potentially better preserved in locally made, more porous ceramics then in fine imported ceramic as juglets.

Ref. DatasetContextCountryPeriod
Muzio 1925 One alabaster jar

Recovered in the Kha Tomb in 1903, now in the collections of the Museo delle Antichità Egizie, TurinEgypt 18th dynasty (1550-1290 BCE)
Bisset et al. 1996Four alabaster unsealed vases, and additional ceramic types
Recovered in the Kha Tomb in 1903, new sampling in the collection of Museo delle Antichità Egizie, TurinEgypt 18th dynasty (1550-1290 BCE)
Koschel 1996 One Base Ring Ware I type I Ba (II) “bilbil” jugletEgyptian collection of the Martin-von-Wagner-Museum of the University of Würzburg/GermanyEgypt 1650-1350 BCE (ceramic typology)
Chovanec et al. 2015 Three Base Ring I juglets  In two rooms of a “palace” type architectural complex (Level 9) at Beth-Shemesh excavated in 2008Israel>13th century BCE
Smith et al. 2018One sealed Base Ring jugletBritish Museum collection. No information on the archaeological contexts.Unspeci-fied LBA, 1650-1350 BCE (ceramic typology)
Linares et al. 202222 vessels including two cypriot Base Ring I jugs; two cypriot Base Ring I juglets ; 4 local vesselsVessels sampled in situ, at Tel Yehud. Tombs with inhumation. Israel LBI-IIA (1550-1300 BCE)
Table 1: Summary of the ORA performed on LBA juglets in south Levant and Egypt.

Thus, it seems that the six organic residue analyses listed above and carried out on several vessels types including Cypriot juglets have produced ambivalent results (Tabl. 1). According to the authors and apart from the oldest studies (before 1996), three of them have given positive results with detection of several alkaloids (Koschel 1996; Smith et al. 2018; Linares et al. 2022). Among them, the study of Smith et al. (2018) in addition to the strong contaminating power of Papaverine, also highlights the potential for alkaloid preservation in the modern commercial cold-pressed oil (Smith et al. 2018), that contradict the general belief that opium poppy seeds are the only part of the plant that has a very low content in alkaloids (Bernáth, Németh 1999: 66-67). Then, Linares et al. (2022), despite results indicating the low preservation of morphine over time (Chovanec, Rafferty, and Swiny 2012), has detected this alkaloid in many vessels at Tel Yehud, inluding storage jar.

Furthermore, non-opiate substances have also been identified in several juglets and others vessels tested. The reuse of juglets is often proposed to explain the detection of non-opiate substances in the pottery i.e., once the contents were consumed, some juglets could have been used as containers for other substances and vice versa (Merrillees 1968; Merrillees 1974; Chovanec, Bunimovitz, and Lederman 2015).

What about the archaeological setting?

As the authors of this scientific blog paper are not specialists in ORA, they are not relevant to highlight possible methodological bias in view of the complexity of the methods and analytical tools employed, including the standard references used to interpret peak identification. ORA are certainly one of the few methods to hope to characterize the past uses of these juglets, but some reflections can be made on the archaeological setting of the results presented above.

Firstly, some juglets were studied out of context without the origin of their acquisition by Museums being verified (Koschel 1996; Smith et al. 2018). Moreover, even if this does not involve the quality of the ORA carried out by researchers3, we deplore a lack of rigor in the archaeological background, when it is described. For example, Chovanec et al. (2012:10–11) is essentially based on the publication of M.D. Merlin (1984), a reference on the subject, but which has since been largely revnew ised with the development of archaeobotanical analyses in Europe. As for Linares et al. (2022:2–3), they propose an almost totally erroneous archaeological setting essentially based on bibliographic second-hand repetitions. As for example, citing Bruneton (1995), the opium poppy would have been mentioned in the Sumerian tablets, this statement has been questioned several times since the middle of the 1980s (Krikorian 1975; Merlin 1984; Nencini 2022, see also here).

Regarding the direct archaeobotanical attestations, i.e., opium poppy seeds, their attestations in Egypt and south Levant are scarce to date. As far as we know, prior to 6000 BCE, that roughly correspond to the earliest opium poppy capsules directly dated, in central Italy, only two sites have provided poppy seeds in the Near-East (Salavert et al. 2020: 202). It includes Atlit Yam in the southern Levant and Körtik Tepe in eastern Anatolia (Kislev, Hartmann, and Galili 2004; Rössner et al. 2018). On these two sites, botanical macroremains have not been directly dated. Moreover, the first attestation of opium poppy seeds in Egypt is to be found in Quseir al Qadim in contexts dated from the Islamic period ca. 1100-1200 ACE (Van der Veen 2011). The mention of the plant in the recipe Eb782 of the famous Papyrus of Ebers is probably erroneous and is based on an old misidentification that was later repeated in the scientific literature (Polko, pers. comm., 8/09/2022)4.

The finalization of the PopArch database, and the DNA and GMM analyses, underway as part of the ANR and FTC poppy project, will probably soon contribute to the discussion about opium poppy dispersal in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd millenium BCE.

Authors and citation

A. Salavert (UMR AASPE: MNHN-CNRS) & S. Vilain (UMR ArScAn: Paris 1, Paris 10, CNRS), 15/05/2023

Cite this article as: Aurélie Salavert, Sarah Vilain 2023″ The search of opium in Eastern Mediterranean at the Late bronze age: a review,” in Opium Poppy, Carnet hypothèses, 06/02/2023, https://opiumpoppy.hypotheses.org/?p=3151.

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Citer ce billet
Aurélie Salavert (2023, 2 juin). “Cypriot juglet theory”: a review. Opium Poppy. Consulté le 25 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/sjr2

  1. Region of south Anatolia []
  2. Any foreign as opposed to indigenous materials and products, Brysbaert et Vetters 2013 []
  3. Most of the cited here articles have been published after a peer review process []
  4. See the commented german traduction of L. Popko of the papyrus here []
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