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Cocaine Mummies & the search for narcotics in historic collections

Mark VKearney20 April 2019

I told a small white lie in my last blog as there was actually a third reason I noticed the seven small cylindrical bronze measures in the Petrie Museum. It was the reason they first caught my eye – their museum label described them as being opium measures. We know that the Egyptians consumed wine because we are able to test archaeological artefacts that could have contained wine for its presence. The scientific techniques used is actually the same as what I use in my PhD research looking at the decay of plastics.

Figure 1 – The seven bronze measuring vessels, as seen on display in the Petrie Museum (Author’s own photograph UC26315)

I mostly associate ancient drug use with the Aztecs, “Reefer Madness”, 1960’s counter culture and Alice in Wonderland! But the use of such a drug, either medicinal or recreational, was unknown to me.

As today is April 20th, I thought we could discuss a little bit about the use of drugs in Egypt…

The set of opium measures is dated to the 18th dynasty, which places them at the start of the opium trade in Egypt. There are a number of interesting questions stemming from this statement:

  • How do we know about the drugs they used?
  • Where did they get their drugs?
  • Just how high were they?

We know ancient Egyptians were using drugs for two reasons: First, through written records; second, through scientific analysis. In the fields of archaeological science, heritage science and forensic science, one technique reigns supreme; gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is held as being the gold standard when it comes to identifying compounds. This method is basically a 2-for-1 in that it first separates out all the different compounds in a sample (that’s the gas chromatography bit), and then each of these compounds has their unique mass-to-charge ratio analysed. This leads to very specific information about each chemical compound that made up the original sample, which in turn makes identifying these compounds relatively straight forward.

Possibly the best example of this, in relation to the Egyptians, is the case of the Cocaine Mummies. In 1992, Dr. Svetlana Balabanova, a German toxicologist,  found traces of cocaine, tobacco, and hash in several different mummies.  For such an important conclusion, her data treatment is lacking, but more worrying is the utter lack of context in her work. In the three scientific fields I mentioned above, context is king. This is because we are not dealing with fresh newly made samples. At a minimum, samples could be a few days old and likely highly contaminated by their surroundings. Contamination is something that can easily happen over the course of 3500 years from either poor storage conditions, poor handling or even cross-contamination with another object. Learning about where to sample from archaeological or artistic objects is one of the fundamental skills you are taught when entering the field. This means without proper provenance or records all results, no matter how good the analysis was conducted, need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

So, what of our German Mummies then? Unlike what Eric Clapton said, cocaine can lie, and three things need to be confirmed before I would be willing to believe the results. The first is are these really ancient Egyptian mummies? Many of the mummies entered collections in the 1800s when record keeping was poor and forgeries were common. Along with this dubious provenance, we have thousands of years of cross-contamination to reconcile. One-nil against.

Secondly is the issue of false positives. While GC/MS makes life easier it does not make things easy. I have personal experience with this, and experience where the context allows for the correct answer to win out. Last week I finished some work at Tate Britain on a plastic artwork. After running a search on the results, something very weird popped up. A clear peak which showed the presence of codeine, a type of opiate. This was a plastic artwork from the 1940s and stored in its protective case at Tate for many years. There is no way this peak was from codeine. In the below image you can see, in red a big peak at 282 and then a scattering of many smaller peaks – this was the signal from my sample. The scattering is noise. The reference sample, in blue, has one main peak at 282 and not a much else.

Figure 2 – A screen grab of the NIST software which searches GCMS results for possible compounds. The red line is from my sample, the blue line is the library reference. The list on the left-hand side are possible matches with match scores – 1000 being a perfect match, an R.Match of 908 means an almost certain match.

The software thinks that because the two samples have the same main peak they must be the same, but context tells us something else might be at play. The noisy smaller values plus a peak at around 282 screams that our GCMS is wearing out and one of its parts will need replacing soon. But if you only ever went by what the software told you would say that this plastic had a drug problem!  Two-nil.

The last issue is where these mummies got their drugs — and again, context remains crucial. Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, something that is not grown in Egypt. A trade route between Egypt and the New World would have had to been in operation for them to get their fix. While not totally out of the realms of possibility, a pre- Columbian trade route is not something that historians believe happened. There is a suggestion of contact with the New World before the arrival of Columbus, such as the one every Irish child is taught in school, but a fully-fledged industrial trade route does not have enough evidence to support it. Three-nil, Game over.

Getting back to opium production, it’s worth thinking about just how high the Egyptians could have gotten. It is rather difficult to say as we don’t know their exact method of production. A number of years ago VICE reported on heroin users in the Czech Republic who would take a vacation to the poppy fields outside the city to cook up their own batch of heroin from latex produced by the poppies in the field. The video shows the relatively easy cultivation of the poppy latex, but analysis showed that they didn’t actually form heroin, but rather morphine and codeine. These two compounds will get you high… just not as high as heroin. It’s likely the Egyptians were able to produce something similar — maybe that’s where they got the idea for the pyramids…