Snakes and opium

I’ve been intrigued for a while by the decoration on the shoulder of this Late Bronze Age juglet: undulating applied bands with a distinctly snaky appearance.

Cypriot Base Ring juglet, © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Such Base Ring juglets are not at all uncommon – there’s even an example in the illustrations of the Sandwith collection. There are four such juglets in the Leeds City Museums collection. Having read up on this type of ware, what I found fascinating is that their decoration – and even their shape – can plausibly be explained as advertising their contents.

Three Base Ring juglets © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Base Ring juglet © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Juglets such as these have been found in Cyprus, Egypt, and across the eastern Mediterranean, and date from the Late Bronze Age (c.1600 – 1450 BC), a period when trade was increasing between Cyprus and neighbouring countries.

In 1962 R.S. Merrillees¹ was the first to posit that these juglets were used to trade opium, probably diluted in a syrup such as honey. He argues that, when turned upside down, the juglets have a striking similarity to the seed pod of Papaver somniferum, the opiate poppy.

Papaver somniferum, F.E. Köhler (1887)

This is obviously more true of some than of others; the foot of the third jug above resembles the flaring top of the seed pod, while the others simply have flattish bases. However, the applied plastic decoration increases the resemblance. Most notably, a double ring where the handle joins the neck recalls the joint between the seed pod and the stem of the poppy.

The reference to opium production is made more explicit by the appearance of a ‘slit’ on the side of one juglet. This appears to be the usual way of harvesting the opium crop; the pods are slit and the opium-bearing latex leaks out, to be collected and dried.

Base Ring juglet with flared foot and ‘slit’ decoration © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Opium poppy

Base Ring juglet © Leeds Museums and Galleries

A similar effect is produced by the parallel vertical lines on the body of this juglet.

The long necks are suitable for dispensing liquids, as well as resembling the poppy’s stem, while the small size of the juglets suggest expensive contents (those shown here are less than 150mm tall). Opium would have been a common analgesic in ancient societies, and presumably therefore in continuous demand, which would fit well with the ubiquity of surviving juglets.

Can this hypothesis – that juglets of this type were designed to carry opium – be proved? Various chemical analyses have been published with claims to have found opiate traces, though these remain contentious. The Leeds juglets contain some intriguing residues; I may yet try to find a contact in the School of Chemistry to investigate further!

Base Ring juglet with residue © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Base Ring juglet with residue © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Jif lemon

Jif lemon

Merrillees makes the point that this kind of advertising by shape is by no means restricted to pre-literate societies, and probably accounts for the consistency over time of the shape of the juglets found in Egypt, since consumers would come to trust a familiar product. Modern parallels are not hard to find…

So what about the snakes? The symbolism is hard to pin down; in later Greek art snakes have a wealth of meanings, including allusion to chthonic (underworld) deities. It is questionable whether this can be projected back to Bronze Age Cyprus, though a broad association with sleep, death and oblivion would fit the opium product well.

The more time I spend with Cypriot ceramics, the more I appreciate their subtlety as well as boldness of form and decoration. These juglets are a good example of the extent to which they repay close reading.

¹ R.S. Merrillees, ‘Opium Trade in the Bronze Age Levant’, Antiquity XXXVI (1962), pp.287-292.

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