Archaeologists have discovered the first definitive evidence of the presence of a hallucinogenic and poisonous plant (Black henbane) in a Roman settlement on the borders of the present day Netherlands. It is thought to have been used in the Roman world.
Hundreds of seeds of the hallucinogenic and poisonous plant known as black henbane were found in a hollowed-out bone in a rural Roman settlement in present day Netherlands. Because they were found in sheep or goat bones, the researchers concluded that the seeds were deliberately used.
“Since the plant can grow naturally in and around settlements, its seeds can naturally reach archaeological sites without human intervention,” said Maaike Groot, lead author of the study and archaeologist at the Free University of Berlin. “The find is unique and provides incontrovertible evidence for the deliberate use of black henbane seeds in the Roman Netherlands.”
Black henbane is a plant described in ancient and historical sources for its medicinal properties and hallucinogenic effects. The nightshade family plant, also known as Hyoscyamus niger, grows naturally on cultivated land and in farming communities. In larger doses, it is lethal. Poisoning has been observed as a result of eating the seeds and roots of this plant. It causes perception of things that are not real. It can cause dry mouth, redness and dryness of the skin, heat accumulation, nearsightedness of the lens of the eye, dilated pupils, heart rate above normal, constipation, inability to remove urine from the bladder and convulsions (especially in case of overdose).
About 2,000 years ago, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentioned various medicinal uses of the plant, including insect stings, earaches and dental diseases with small doses. The settlement of Houten Castellum in the Netherlands, where the seed was found, is located in a rural area of the Roman Empire where we think henbane use may have been widespread.
“Our study contributes to the debate on how to distinguish between a weed found naturally in archaeobotanical communities and a plant deliberately used by humans,” Groot said. “We argue that future finds of black henbane should be studied taking into account the context of the find and its relationship with other medicinal plants.”