Archaeologists Find Evidence of Hallucinogenic Drug in Ancient Rome

Two new archaeological finds suggest Roman subjects at the northern edge of the ancient empire used a hallucinogenic and poisonous plant called black henbane, the effects of which were described by Greek philosopher Plutarch as “not so properly called drunkenness” but rather “alienation of mind or madness.” Dutch zooarchaeologists Maaike Groot and Martijn van Haasteren and archaeobotanist Laura I. Kooistra published their research on February 8 in the academic journal Antiquity.

The scholars made the discoveries at the Houten-Castellum archaeological site in the Netherlands, which was inhabited from the 6th century BCE through the 2nd century CE, when it was under Roman rule. The findings comprise a 90–110 CE basket or fish trap buried face-down with the plant and a polished and hollowed sheep or goat femur containing around 1,000 black henbane seeds, sealed with a birch-bark tar plug. The latter, considered by the scholars to be a container rather than a pipe, was uncovered in a 70–100 CE water pit alongside a partial cow skeleton, the skull of a dog, a wire brooch, and ceramics. The team thinks both finds are examples of “abandonment offerings,” part of a ritual to mark the end of a farmhouse’s occupation. The home would be demolished and part of its contents buried.

“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,” Goot told Hyperallergic, noting that although she cannot rule out its consumption before the Roman period, it is tempting to classify the drug as a Roman introduction.

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The researchers decided the bone was a container rather than a pipe, in part because “there are a lot of seeds considering how potent the plant is supposed to be.” (photo courtesy Antiquity)
The white arrow points to the black henbane plant buried alongside an upside-down basket or fish traps and pots. (image courtesy University of Cambridge Press)

Physiological reactions to black henbane were well documented throughout the Ancient Mediterranean world. Roman writer Pliny the Elder discussed the plant’s medicinal, hallucinatory, and potentially lethal effects, noting that although it could be taken to heal ailments ranging from coughs to fever, the drug could also cause insanity and derangement. The Greek and Roman physician Dioscoride wrote that black henbane and its close cousins could alleviate pain, but cause disorientation when boiled.

Still, physical discoveries of the drug’s purposeful consumption are relatively rare. Black henbane, native to northwestern Europe, is a “weed of cultivation,” a plant that thrives alongside crops. While it has previously been found at Roman settlements in the Netherlands, the hypothesis that it was consumed has historically been dismissed, since its seeds could have accidentally ended up in harvests.

Archaeologists have found a few other instances of black henbabe’s intentional use in Europe. Its seeds were discovered in a purse buried alongside a woman who died in Denmark around 980 CE and in Roman-era and Medieval hospitals in modern-day Germany and Scotland. 

“We hope that this paper will have people think more about finds of black henbane seeds, since they are often grouped among wild plants in archaeobotanical reports and the potential use by humans can thus be overlooked,” said Groot. She noted that although her recent research was a “brief excursion into the wonderful world of archaeobotany,” she’s back to her work as a zooarchaeologist researching the role of animals in the past.

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