“Evidence of the deliberate collection and use of black henbane seeds in the Roman Netherlands is presented here for the first time,” researchers from the Netherlands and Germany wrote in the study, published in the journal Antiquity on Thursday, February 8.
Black henbane is “an extremely poisonous plant species that can also be used as a medicinal or psychoactive drug,” the study explained, adding that all parts of the flowering plant can be used as a medicine or narcotic.
Its seeds can be made into a juice “for curing all kinds of pain, mucus and disorders of the womb, while the leaves can be applied to the body to soothe pain or be used in a decoction to cure fever,” the researchers said.
However, when boiled “like vegetables,” the leaves can cause “heavy disturbance of the senses,” they noted.
“In medieval texts, magical or ritual properties are ascribed to black henbane alongside its medicinal function,” the research said.
Historians have also found evidence that the plant was used “to evoke rain, summon demons and attract game,” and as an ingredient “in witches’ potions” due to its “psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties.”
The study centered around an artifact made from animal bone found in 2017 at Houten-Castellum, a rural Roman settlement in the Netherlands. The site was inhabited from the Early Iron Age, during the 6th century B.C., to the Roman period.
The bone, from a sheep or goat, “had been hollowed out, sealed on one side by a plug of a black material and filled with hundreds of black henbane seeds,” the study said, adding that the discovery presented “an opportunity to gain new insight into the historical use of this species.”
The researchers said that finds from inside containers, especially those with a large number of seeds, “are considered indicative of intentional use by humans,” and that it could therefore be concluded that “henbane was used as a medicine, and that the dangerous side effects of its use were known, in the Roman and Greek worlds.”
“It is possible that these first farmers brought this plant species with them, either intentionally or unintentionally,” the study explained.
Since the plant grows like a weed at these sites, experts have found it difficult to determine its significance.
But despite the plant’s air of mystery, the study noted that “some archaeological evidence does suggest that its psychoactive properties were understood and exploited by people.”
The Greco-Roman physician Dioscorides, the researchers said, wrote that “white henbane is best for cures and the black should be avoided due to its stronger effects.”
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder also wrote that the plant causes “insanity and giddiness,” and called it “both a poison and a remedy.”
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Author: Marissa Papanek
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