1400-Year-Old Drug Lab Found in Istanbul

Archeologists digging in Istanbul found hundreds of small bottles, a mortar, pestles, a cooker and some strange plants. Sounds like they stumbled upon a modern drug lab … except the site dated back to around 620 AD. Should the site and the artifacts be preserved as a set for a new show called Breaking Bad: The Really Early Years?

The drug lab was uncovered in what was once the ancient Greek city of Bathonea in the Avcilar district of Istanbul by an excavation team under Sengul Aydingun. Around 700 tiny ceramic and glass bottles were found, many with drug residue inside. The drugs were analyzed by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and found to be methanone (an antidepressant) and phenanthrene (a treatment for heart disease). According to the local news report, the number of bottles and size of the cooker indicate this was a big operation that could stay open even in the cold Bathonea winter.

line-of-bottles

A large number of the ancient drug vials were found intact

Why did these people need antidepressants? Well, the Western Roman Empire had just collapsed, the brutal plague-filled Middle Ages were starting up and the area was being attacked by a nomadic group of Eurasians known as the Pannonian Avars or Avars. Not much is known about the Avars, but it appears they may have been responsible for the demise of this drug lab, which looks like it was vandalized and possibly destroyed by fire. (The plot for Breaking Bad: The Really Early Years just got a new twist.) If confirmed, this would be the first real archeological evidence of an Avar attack.

Phenanthrene can be made using the stems of orchids and methanone appears to be from a cannabinoid plant, which would explain its antidepressant effect. Writings about depression date back to the ancient Greeks, so it’s not surprising that the Greeks in ancient Turkey would be working on antidepressants.

Archeologists working at the ancient drug lab near Lake Kucukcekmece

Archeologists working at the ancient drug lab near Lake Kucukcekmece

The modern archeologists working at the site may want to lick the bottles too. Most of the digging is in areas of Lake Kucukcekmece exposed after recent droughts. More artifacts might be found deeper in the lake but Aydingun explains the depressing reason why they may not go looking.

About 90 percent of the water is filled with sewage, nuclear and industrial waste. It is difficult to see [in the lake], so our underwater team could not work. Maybe there is a sunken ship like in Yenikapı, because we have found many broken pieces on the shore. There are also ceramic pieces from the Roman era, suggesting that maritime trade took place. When the lake is cleaned properly, we will be able to know more.

Once again, where there’s humans, there’s drugs, depression and dirty water.