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Ancient Romans Used to Trip on Hallucinogenic Seeds, Archeologists Say

A recent discovery of seeds hidden in a container made out of bone gives archeologists a clue about how Ancient Romans used psychedelics.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated May 2, 2024

Archaeologists just found evidence showing that ancient Romans had an affinity for plant medicine. In February, scientists in the Netherlands discovered an ancient Roman settler’s stash of hallucinogenic seeds located inside a hollowed-out animal bone dating back 2,000 years, Science reported.

The seeds discovered were black henbane, a plant from the nightshade family native to temperate Europe. According to ancient writings, medicine workers and physicians were fascinated and fearful of black henbane. Just the right dose would induce a mild narcotic effect. People used them in party-like environments and as a way to reduce pain, fever, and coughs. They were even used to assist with difficult pregnancies. 

But ingesting too much would send people into harrowing pits of psychedelic despair. Ancient scholars like Pliny the Elder and Plutarch wrote about black henbane’s beneficial uses but warned that it could also “derange the brain,” according to a study published in the journal Antiquity.

According to Smithsonian, the plant grows like a weed and is mentioned throughout many historical Roman texts. Despite the documentation, it is challenging to demonstrate that the Romans deliberately harvested it for use.

“Since black henbane can grow naturally in and around settlements, its seeds can end up in archaeological sites simply by chance,” says lead author Maaike Groot, a zooarchaeologist at the Free University of Berlin, in a statement. “This makes it difficult to prove if it was used intentionally by humans—whether medicinally or recreationally.”

The seeds, however, appear to be purposefully stashed away—how else would they get neatly packed into an animal bone? The canister—which archeologists believe is a sheep or goat bone—was unearthed at the rural Roman settlement of Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands. The bone is reportedly 2.8 inches long, and its contents were kept in place thanks to tarred birch bark used as a lid, Live Science reports. Researchers say the bone canister dates back to between 70 and 100 CE by using other artifacts discovered at the same site.

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The bone container, about the diameter of a pinkie finger, tells a story of human use. “To see it in a bone with a plug, I found really interesting,” says Laurence Totelin, a historian of science at Cardiff University, who was not part of the research team. “It’s quite clearly preserved for medicinal purposes.”

READ: The Mystery of the Dream-Inducing Plants of Ancient Iran

But archaeologists almost missed this find. While sorting through more than 86,000 animal bones found at a 2000-year-old farmstead near the Dutch city of Utrecht, Groot initially didn’t notice that one of the bones was sealed at one end, Science reports.

Her colleague Martijn van Haasteren, an archaeozoologist who works for the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, also missed the plug while cleaning the bones back at his lab. He realized he uncovered something only after noticing hundreds of tiny black specks had spilled everywhere.

The researchers carefully analyzed the seeds to ascertain if there were any traces of smoking. Earlier studies had suggested that the bone container discovered in the Netherlands might have served a dual purpose as a pipe, according to a public statement. However, according to Groot, the results from her team’s investigation indicate that the seeds were merely kept in the bone, and there is no evidence to support its use for smoking.

The Netherlands bone canister is the first concrete evidence of black henbane seeds’ use in the Roman period. And as Live Science reports, it’s also the earliest known example of the seeds being stored for later use.

“[The seeds] are often grouped among wild plants in archaeobotanical reports, and the potential use by humans can thus be overlooked,” Groot tells Hyperallergic. “We hope that this paper will have people [thinking] more about finds of black henbane seeds.”

Groot is also struck by the idea that a plant medicine practice famous in Rome had spread to a rural community hundreds of miles away. “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,” she tells Hyperallergic.

It suggests one thing has always been true: Interesting drugs have never stayed under wraps—not even in ancient times.

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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