“Bone jars” with exciting contents

This bone vessel (left) with a stopper was filled with henbane seeds (right) around 2000 years ago. Groot et al., Antiquity, doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.5 Creative Commons CC BY license

They were used as painkillers or intoxicants: henbane seeds in a bone vessel from a Roman site in the Netherlands provide evidence of the pharmacological use of the poisonous nightshade plant in ancient times. The discovery confirms historical traditions and suggests widespread use of the special herb in the Roman Empire, say the archaeologists.

Black henbane is highly toxic - but also has pharmacological potential. The picture shows the unusually dark flowers of Hyoscyamus niger © Alena Vikhareva/iStock

“The dose makes the poison”: This rule is known to apply to many active ingredients and this is particularly the case with black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). This representative of the nightshade family, which is widespread in Europe, produces potentially life-threatening alkaloids. In small doses, however, they have a psychoactive effect: hallucinations or intoxication occur. Henbane has probably also been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times. This is documented in writing by ancient authors such as the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 AD). They report on the effects and uses of plants that can be classified as henbane herbs. Above all, the pain-relieving effect is described. The ancient authors also reported hallucinogenic effects and warned of the danger of poisoning.

Direct proof of use

To date, however, there has been little direct evidence of the pharmacological use of henbane. Seeds or other remains of plants were discovered at archaeological sites with remarkable frequency. However, it was usually not possible to clearly clarify whether the plants were used specifically or whether they had just grown naturally at the archaeological sites. The discovery, reported by the research team led by Maaike Groot from the Free University of Berlin, now clearly shows the practical use of the herb. The find comes from the “Houten-Castellum” excavation site in the Netherlands. A rural settlement was located there during the era of Roman rule over the region.

As the team reports, the discovery is an approximately seven centimeter long piece of a sheep or goat leg bone. The soft bone material in the middle had apparently been deliberately removed in order to transform the piece of bone into a vessel. It was closed by a plug, which, according to the results of the investigation, was a lump of birch pitch. This closure apparently once prevented the fine-grained contents from trickling out: the researchers discovered hundreds of seeds in the bone vessel. As the subsequent investigations showed, they come exclusively from black henbane.

Medicine container or drug pipe?

It was therefore obvious that the container was used to store the pharmacologically active structures. The researchers also investigated another possibility: Was the piece of bone perhaps a kind of pipe for smoking the seeds? As the team reports, the lack of traces of heating or charring on the cooking or on the seeds speaks against this theory. In addition, inhalation of smoke or fumes from seeds containing particularly active ingredients could easily have led to a life-threatening overdose, say the researchers.

They therefore assume that it was some kind of medicine bottle. However, exactly how and what the seeds were used for remains unclear. But at least the vessel is now a direct testimony to the pharmacological benefits of henbane in Roman times. So far, the oldest discovery of a container containing parts of this plant came from medieval Denmark. “Our research results also show that henbane was apparently also used in rural settlements on the periphery of the Roman Empire,” concludes Groot.

Source: Free University of Berlin, specialist article: Antiquity, doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.5

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