Archeologists find hallucinogenic plant in Roman settlement

Archeologists have discovered the first conclusive evidence that a hallucinogenic and poisonous plant was used in the Roman world.

Known as black henbane, hundreds of the plant’s seeds were found in a hollowed-out bone in a rural Roman settlement in the present-day Netherlands. Because the sheep or goat bone was sealed with a birch-bark tar plug, researchers concluded that the seeds were being used intentionally.

“Since the plant can grow naturally in and around settlements, its seeds can end up in archaeological sites naturally, without intervention by humans,” lead author and Free University of Berlin archeologist Maaike Groot said in a news release. “The find is unique and provides unmistakable proof for the intentional use of black henbane seeds in the Roman Netherlands.”

Black henbane is mentioned in ancient and historical sources for its medical properties and its hallucinogenic effects. Also known as Hyoscyamus niger, the nightshade family plant naturally thrives in cultivated land and farming communities. It is lethal in larger doses.

Writing nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman author Pliny the Elder discussed the plant’s various medicinal uses, including for insect stings, earaches and tooth disease. The settlement of Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands where the seed container was found would have stood at the rural periphery of the Roman Empire, suggesting henbane use could have been widespread.

For approximately 1,000 years, the Roman Empire dominated much of Europe and the Mediterranean region until the beginning of the Middle Ages. The study will appear in the April edition of the peer-reviewed academic journal Antiquity.

“Our study contributes to the discussion of how to distinguish between a weed naturally ending up in archaeobotanical assemblages and a plant intentionally used by people,” Groot said. “We argue that future finds of black henbane should be studied by taking into account the context of the find and its relation to other medicinal plants.”

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