Jan. 7, 2009 at 9:54 PM ET
David Potter / Oxford University Press
A purple-gloved lab worker handles a clump of still-green marijuana found in the
2,700-year-old grave of a man in the Gobi Desert — part of an ancient stash.
Ancient civilizations may not have perfected frat-party technology, but the weirdest stories of the past year demonstrate that they could get just as high - and indulge in humor just as low - as your typical contemporary college crowd.
Today we rounded up the top 10 vote-getters in our Weird Science Awards competition, and the top two tales both had to do with what you might call ancient diversions: the discovery of a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash in the Gobi Desert and a 1,600-year-old Pythonesque joke from a Greek manuscript.
Both tales represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the diversions of ancient times. Life for the typical ancient Roman or Greek, or Egyptian or Chinese, was even nastier, more brutish and shorter than it is today - so consolations such as a stiff drink or a good laugh were widely sought after.
Take the history of marijuana use, for example: The hemp plant was thought to have been used for its psychoactive properties in ancient India and Assyria as well as China and Russia. In his book on the subject, "Cannabis: A History," Martin Booth notes that Russian archaeologists found stone-filled cauldrons that may have been used for inhaling pot smoke during burial rites in Mongolia, 2,400 years ago. This not only meshes with the more recent Gobi Desert discovery, but might also explain the modern-day meaning of the word "stoned." (Heh, heh.)
The historian Herodotus famously remarked on marijuana's use by the Scythians during funerals in the fifth century B.C. "The Scythians, transported with the vapor, shout aloud," he wrote. Some even suggest that cannabis was an ingredient in the recipe for anointing oil laid out in the Book of Exodus (a claim that others have found shockingly sacrilegious).
The Egyptians went in more for beer and wine - as we've mentioned before with relation to the pharaonic "festival of drunkenness" that was documented by Herodotus. (Man, that guy really got around!) Corn beer was the intoxicant of choice for New World cultures, such as Peru's Incan and Wari empires and the Southwest's Pueblo Indians.
To learn more ancient libations, check out this story about 9,000-year-old Chinese wine, and this one about King Tut's drinking preferences. If you haven't seen it already, don't miss our interactive gallery of gaming and guzzling through the millennia.
Finally, here are some links that will fill you in on what passed for humor in ancient times (including the Egyptian equivalent of card-playing dog paintings):
Update for 7:30 p.m. ET: Just in the past couple of days, we've published a couple of stories about ancient diversions that just might make the list for the 2010 Weird Science Awards: this one about Stonehenge as the perfect place for a trance party, and this one about a gladiator revival at Rome's Colosseum.