For Pain or Pleasure? Poisonous Plant Henbane Used by the Romans

While digging at the site of a rural, first-century AD Roman settlement in Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands, archaeologists uncovered a most unusual artifact. Inside a hollowed-out animal bone, they discovered a collection of well-preserved black henbane seeds, which had apparently been stored there on purpose.

Decoding the Purpose of Henbane Seed Collection in a Roman Settlement

In an article to appear in the journal Antiquitythe team of researchers analyzed the bone and its contents. They presented evidence to show that the settlers in the old Roman village, which is located 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Amsterdam, were intentionally saving henbane seeds because the plant had value in their society.

Black henbane is known to have both healing and hallucinogenic effects, and presumably the people who saved the henbane seeds were aware of these benefits. Whoever put them inside the hollow bone (which is believed to have come from a sheep or a goat) plugged the bone with a solid stopper made from black birch-bark tar.

This clearly showed it was container designed to store something important. There were hundreds of henbane seeds inside, indicating the collector was serious about collecting a good-sized sample.

The hollowed-out animal bone container, filled with henbane seeds, as pictured during the excavations in the Netherlands. (Van Renswoude et. al. / Antiquity)

The hollowed-out animal bone container, filled with henbane seeds, as pictured during the excavations in the Netherlands. (Van Renswoude et. al. / Antiquity)

Until now, no conclusive proof had ever been found to suggest that the properties of black henbane were understood by people living in remote regions of the Roman Empire. But there would have been no reason to save seed samples of this non-food plant unless its healing and/or mind-altering capacities had been discovered.

Other researchers who’d looked at this sealed bone suggested it may have been used to smoke henbane. But the new study revealed that there was no charring, or any other signs of burning, inside the hollow bone. This would seem to offer definitive proof that it was used strictly as a storage container.

Black Henbane: Just a Weed, or a Magical Plant?

Black henbanewhich is also known by the scientific name Hyoscyamus nigeris a highly poisonous plant that can have either medicinal or psychoactive properties, depending on how it is processed and prepared. This has been known for thousands of years, and indeed dried samples of black henbane have been found at many different archaeological sites in northwestern Europe, dating as far back as the Neolithic period (4,000 BC).

Even though it was known to have beneficial attributes, black henbane was not always sought after. Far from being rare, it is a plant that tends to thrive around the fringes of cultivated land, often in abundance.

“Since the plant can grow naturally in and around settlements, its seeds can end up in archaeological sites naturally, without intervention by humans,” study lead author Maaike Groot, an archaeologist from the Freie Universität Berlin, said in a press statement. “This is why it is usually classed among wild plants/weeds in archaeobotanical studies.”

The enclosure ditch where the black henbane seeds were excavated. (Van Renswoude et. al. / Antiquity)

The enclosure ditch where the black henbane seeds were excavated. (Van Renswoude et. al. / Antiquity)

But the people who lived in Houten-Castellum in Roman times obviously saw black henbane as more than just another weed.

Remarkably, there have only been four archaeological discoveries in northwestern Europe showing any evidence that black henbane was used by humans for one purpose or another. Only one of these, dating to medieval Denmark, involved seeds found stored in a container.

Because of its antiquity, the Roman-era container found in the Netherlands is a singular discovery. “The find is unique and provides unmistakable proof for the intentional use of black henbane seeds in the Roman Netherlands,” Dr. Groot stated.

Post-excavation of the hollowed-out animal bone found filled with henbane seeds. (Kooistra / Antiquity)

Post-excavation of the hollowed-out animal bone found filled with henbane seeds. (Kooistra / Antiquity)

Houten-Castellum: Making a Go of it in the Roman Hinterlands

The site designated Houten-Castellum is located within the boundaries of the present-day village of Houten in the central Netherlands. The site was first occupied during the Early Iron Age (in the sixth century BC), and it seems that Roman occupation began around the turn of the first century AD. It is believed that the Roman settlement would have been a self-sufficient agrarian community. While it prospered for a time, it was apparently abandoned in the latter part of the second century AD for reasons unknown.

Excavations at the site have unearthed significant quantities of pottery shards, metal objects and animal bones, much of which dates to the time of the Roman occupation. The Roman settlers at Houten-Castellum likely produced a surplus of food, which they could have used to acquire pottery, jewelry and stone from places as far away as Germany and England. Long-distance trade routes were in existence at the time, and if the medicinal properties of black henbane were understood its seeds could have been passed along these trade routes as well.

Notably, black henbane seeds were found in some botanical samples taken from two pits and one waterhole in Houten-Castellum. These samples gave no indication of having been touched by human hands, suggesting they came from plants that grew wild as weeds. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest any intentional cultivation of black henbane at the site, which may mean the seeds were collected for trade rather than for local use.

Left: The bone cylinder and plug. Right: The black henbane seeds discovered within. (BIAC Consult / Antiquity)

Left: The bone cylinder and plug. Right: The black henbane seeds discovered within. (BIAC Consult / Antiquity)

Has the Truth About Ancient Black Henbane Use Been Overlooked?

While black henbane is and was common in nature, the researchers involved in this new study believe their findings should give pause to those who would dismiss the importance of its presence at archaeological sites.

“Black henbane presents problems for archaeobotanical interpretation as it could occur naturally at most of the archaeological sites where it has been found,” they wrote in their Antiquity paper.

“Our analyses show that the plant was used by people, but unequivocal cases of intentional use are very rare. Nevertheless, we suggest that black henbane should not be disregarded as a wild plant so quickly in the future; the contexts of finds and associations with other plant species and artifacts should first be carefully considered.”

In the first century AD, the great Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder did write about the properties of black henbane, emphasizing its medicinal usefulness. Thus, the discovery of preserved henbane seeds in a far-off rural settlement in the Netherlands shows that even on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, people knew something about this plant’s special capacities.

Top image: The bone, black henbane seeds and tar plug used to keep it sealed. Source: BIAC Consult

By Nathan Falde

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