Romans Stored Hallucinogenic Seeds in a Vial Made From an Animal Bone

Ancient scholars wrote about the medicinal, poisonous and psychoactive properties of black henbane seeds

Seeds With Bone
The hollow bone containing the seeds was discovered at a Roman-era settlement in 2017. BIAX Consult via Free University of Berlin

Archaeologists in the Netherlands have discovered a Roman settler’s stash of poisonous seeds, sealed in a hollowed-out animal bone 2,000 years ago.

The discovery is the first evidence that Romans in the Netherlands collected and stored seeds from the black henbane plant, a highly toxic member of the nightshade family. While the plant has long been notorious for its poisonous effects, it also has a reputation as a medicinal aid and hallucinogenic drug.

Ancient scholars like Pliny the Elder wrote about black henbane’s use as a treatment for fever, cough and pain. But Pliny also warned that henbane “deranges the brain,” according to a study published last week in the journal Antiquity.

The plant grows like a weed—and despite its presence in historical records, proving that Romans purposefully collected it is difficult.

“Since black henbane can grow naturally in and around settlements, its seeds can end up in archaeological sites simply by chance,” says lead author Maaike Groot, a zooarchaeologist at the Free University of Berlin, in a statement. “This makes it difficult to prove if it was used intentionally by humans—whether medicinally or recreationally.”

This bunch of seeds, however, appears to be purposefully preserved. Its canister—a hollowed bone likely from a goat or sheep—was unearthed in 2017 at the rural Roman settlement of Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands. The bone is 2.8 inches long, and its contents were kept in place by a plug made from black birch bark, as Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki reports. Using other artifacts found at the same site, researchers dated the bone canister to between 70 and 100 C.E.

Bone, Plug and Seeds
The hollowed bone is pictured here with its birch plug, alongside black henbane seeds. Maaike Groot, Martijn van Haasteren and Laura I. Kooistra / BIAX Consult via Antiquity

The team examined the seeds to determine whether they’d been singed—or smoked. Black henbane is also a hallucinogen, and ancient texts note that when the plant was boiled, it caused “insanity or derangement,” writes Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie.

Previous research indicated that the bone canister found in the Netherlands may have doubled as a pipe, per the statement. But as Groot says, her team’s findings suggest the seeds were simply stored in the bone, and “it was not used for smoking.”

Archaeologists have found only four other examples of individuals intentionally using black henbane seeds in northwestern Europe. Only one of those was discovered in a container, and it dates to medieval Denmark.

The Netherlands bone canister is the first concrete evidence of black henbane seeds’ use in the Roman period. And as Live Science reports, it’s also the earliest known example of the seeds being stored for later use.

“[The seeds] are often grouped among wild plants in archaeobotanical reports, and the potential use by humans can thus be overlooked,” Groot tells Hyperallergic. “We hope that this paper will have people [thinking] more about finds of black henbane seeds.”

Groot is also struck by the idea that a plant medicine practice famous in Rome had spread to a rural community hundreds of miles away.

“What I particularly like about this find is the potential link between medicinal knowledge described by Roman authors in Roman Italy and people actually using the plant in a small village on the edge of the empire,” she tells Hyperallergic.

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