Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of seeds from a poisonous plant in a rural Roman settlement in the Netherlands that may have been used as a hallucinogenic drug.
The seeds discovered at the settlement of Houten-Castellum originate from the poisonous plant henbane, which is part of the nightshade family and has been used as both a medicine and a narcotic.
Until now, no conclusive evidence of the use of black henbane has been discovered from Roman times. Historically, henbane was used in combination with other plants in “magic brews”.
The use of henbane by the ancient Greeks was documented by Pliny, who said it was “of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding”, and by Dioscorides, who recommended it as a sedative and analgesic.
Experts said the placement of seeds inside a hollowed-out sheep or goat bone, sealed with a black birch bark tar plug, indicates the seeds were stored there intentionally around 2,000 years ago.
Historic texts suggest that henbane may have been used as a painkiller and sleep remedy. But others warn it can also have strong hallucinogenic effects – causing loss of muscle control, dilation of pupils, visions and even inducing a sense of flying.
Did Romans take the drug?
While this is the first example of black henbane being found in a container from the Roman period, it is not clear exactly what its intended use was, the researchers said.
Writing in the journal Antiquity the team, from Freie Universität Berlin, said: “Black henbane is an extremely poisonous plant species that can also be used as a medicinal or psychoactive drug.
“Instances, where the intentional human use of black henbane can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, are rare.
“Only a handful of archaeological examples can be cited: one find in a grave and three finds from hospitals.
“The discovery at Houten-Castellum, in the Roman Netherlands, of a bone cylinder closed at one end with a birch-bark tar plug and filled with black henbane seeds therefore provides an important new case for the deliberate collection and use of seeds from this plant.”
Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson accidentally recommended henbane as a “tasty addition to salads” in the August 2008 issue of Healthy and Organic Living magazine.
The publication promptly warned subscribers against consuming the “very toxic” plant upon discovery of the error, and Thompson admitted to confusing it with fat hen, a member of the spinach family.