Ancient Romans Used Poisonous Plant as a Painkiller, New Evidence Shows

Archaeologists have found a hollowed-out animal bone containing hundreds of black henbane seeds at a Roman site in the Netherlands, suggesting that the plant was used for its medicinal and psychoactive properties.

The Discovery of the Bone Container

The bone container was discovered in a muddy pit at Houten-Castellum, a rural settlement that dates back to the first century CE. The bone was likely from a sheep or a goat, and was carved into a cylinder about 7 cm long. The bone was sealed with a plug made of black birch-bark tar, a substance that was also used by ancient people for waterproofing and glueing.

Inside the bone, archaeologists found about 500 black henbane seeds, which belong to a plant that is also known as stinking nightshade. The plant is highly poisonous, but also has medicinal and psychoactive effects. The seeds were well-preserved due to the anaerobic conditions of the pit, and were identified by their shape, size, and microscopic features.

The discovery of the bone container is the first conclusive evidence that the Romans intentionally collected and used black henbane seeds, according to the study published in the journal Antiquity. Previous finds of black henbane seeds at archaeological sites could have been accidental, as the plant can grow naturally in and around settlements.

The Uses of Black Henbane

Black henbane is a plant that has a long history of use and abuse in various cultures. The plant contains alkaloids that can cause sedation, analgesia, hallucinations, and delirium. The plant can also be fatal if consumed in large doses.

A Hollowed-Out Bone

Ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, mentioned the plant as a remedy for various ailments, such as fever, cough, toothache, and pain. The plant was also used as an anesthetic for surgeries and amputations. However, the plant was also associated with witchcraft, magic, and madness, as it could induce visions and altered states of consciousness.

The researchers who analyzed the bone container suggest that the black henbane seeds were used for medical purposes, rather than recreational ones. They argue that the seeds were not burned or singed, which would indicate smoking, and that the amount of seeds was too large for a single dose. They also note that the bone container was found in a rural settlement, where medical care was likely scarce and self-administered.

The Implications of the Find

The find of the bone container sheds new light on the medical practices and knowledge of the Romans, especially in the periphery of the empire. The find also demonstrates the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the ancient people, who used animal bones and birch-bark tar to create a container for storing and transporting the seeds.

The find also raises questions about the origin and spread of black henbane in Europe, and its role in the cultural and religious beliefs of the ancient people. The researchers hope that more studies will be conducted on the plant and its archaeological occurrences, to better understand its history and significance.

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