The ancient Romans were many things. An unstoppable colonial force. A fearsome military power. Inventors of indoor plumbing, and long straight roads. And, let’s not forget, they were also really fond of getting wasted. 

In fact, the word bacchanalia, which means wild, daubached, unrestrained merrymaking (i.e. a really good party) comes from the Roman festival of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, intoxication, freedom, and ecstasy (not that kind!)

Apart from copious amounts of wine, the Romans were known to be fans of opium, and considered cannabis seeds a delicacy. When fried as a dessert, these weed seeds induced “a feeling of warmth” — and if you really went to town on them, you could expect to be overcome by a “warm and toxic vapor”, according to Galen, the Greek-born premier physician of ancient Rome. So, y’know these Romans have form. But a recent discovery by archeologists excavating an ancient Roman settler’s home in the Netherlands has certainly deepened their reputation as the Old World’s most dedicated revelers.  

Archeologists Discover Hallucinogenic Seeds

In February this year, scientists in the Netherlands discovered, in the home of an ancient Roman settler, a bunch of hallucinogenic seeds that had been stashed inside a hollowed-out animal bone. The finding dated back 2,000 years, Science reported. 

The seeds the archeologists discovered were black henbane. Black henbane is a plant from the nightshade family that is native to the milder climates of Europe. Ancient writings suggest that physicians and plant medicine practitioners were at once fascinated by, and fearful of, black henbane. The perfect dose would produce a mild narcotic effect. This was used to treat medical complaints such as pain, coughs, and fever, but also as a recreational, or ‘party’ drug. 

However, as with most drugs, taking too much could have undesirable effects. According to a study published in the journal Antiquity, black henbane, when taken incorrectly, could lead to (according to 1st century scholar Plutarch) “alienation of the mind or madness.”

Black henbane via Wikimedia Commons

Proving That The Seeds Were Used Medicinally

Black henbane is known to grow easily, and is mentioned numerous times in historical Roman texts. Despite this, so far it has been difficult to confirm that ancient Romans deliberately harvested the plant for use. Just because its seeds are found at an archaeological site does not mean that they were the possession of ancient people. 

However, what makes this new finding exemplary is that we can clearly see that the seeds were purposefully stashed away and kept safe. In a purpose-made animal bone canister, no less! The archaeologists believe that this canister was fashioned out of a goat or sheep bone. It is 2.8 inches long, and the seeds were kept sealed within by a lid made of tanned birch bark. Researchers say that the canister, found in the rural Roman settlement of Houten Castellum, not far from Utrecht, in the Netherlands., dates back to between 70 and 100 CE. 

Laurence Totelin, who was not on the research team, but is a historian of science at Cardiff University said;

 “To see it [the henbane] in a bone with a plug, I found really interesting… It’s quite clearly preserved for medicinal purposes.”

One Special Bone in a Sea of Bones

However, the archaeologists almost missed this novel find, which is just the diameter of a pinkie finger. It’s easy to see why — they were sorting through a hoard of over 86,000 animal bones, found at a 2,000 year old farmstead. Which is a lot of old bones for anyone to look at, even archeologists. 

It was only when the bones were being cleaned that the discovery was made. Tiny black seeds suddenly appeared out of nowhere, alerting the researchers to the bone-canister and its hallucinogenic cargo.  

The researchers first analyzed the seeds to discover if there were any signs of smoking, based on earlier discoveries of canisters like this, that were also used as pipes. However, according to the study’s lead author Maaike Groot, the team concluded that the bone was just a container for the seeds, with no evidence to suggest it was used for smoking. 

A recreation of a Roman Settlement in the Netherlands (via Wikimedia Commons)

Plant Medicine is Human History

As interest in natural remedies and plant medicine is reignited in our modern world, it is fitting that we learn more about the knowledge and practices of our ancient predecessors. This finding is, in fact, the ‘first concrete evidence of black henbane seeds’. Which, sure, may not seem like much to us, but it is actually all part of the rich tapestry of plant medicine that the human race has been weaving since the beginning of time. From black henbane seeds of the ancient world, to magic truffles today, humans have always prized and collected the naturally occurring treasures that Mother Earth provides — for both healing and recreational reasons. 

We Have Always Shared Knowledge

It also highlights that we humans have always shared this knowledge and built community and wisdom around it. Groot herself, was struck by the idea that the use of a medicinal plant, discussed by Plutarch and Pliny the Elder in Rome, had spread to a rural settlement, hundreds of miles away in another country. She told Hyperallergic;

“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,”

Today the dissemination of information about plant medicines, such as magic mushrooms and truffles, is much more easily done with the endless encyclopedia that is the internet. However, nowadays we don’t recommend storing your shrooms in a goat bone…

Pppsst! Need actual advice on how to store your shrooms? Check out our handy guide