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A team of archaeologists led by Dr. Maaike Groot from Freie Universität Berlin has provided the first firm evidence that the Romans deliberately collected and used the poisonous seeds of the black henbane plant.
The team analyzed seeds found in a hollowed bone discovered at the Roman-period settlement of Houten-Castellum in the Netherlands and compared them to other archaeological occurrences of the plant. The results of the study were published in the journal Antiquity.
The team's findings support the accounts of classical writers such as Pliny the Elder, who discuss the plant's medical applications as a remedy for ailments, including fever, cough and pain. "Our results indicate that Roman medical practices even extended to rural communities on the Empire's periphery," explains Groot.
Previous research suggests that the bone may have been a pipe used to smoke henbane, as the seeds are also known to produce hallucinogenic effects. However, these seeds were not singed in any way, and there was a lack of evidence for burning on the pipe. Furthermore, it would have been deadly to smoke the hundreds of seeds stored within the pipe, implying that it was instead a container for storing the seeds.