The remains of black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger ) are relatively common at archaeological sites as it grows naturally around settlements in north-western Europe. All parts of the plant may be used as a medicine or a narcotic but its natural prevalence in built environments makes it difficult to interpret any intentionality behind its presence in the archaeological record. Evidence of the deliberate collection and use of black henbane seeds in the Roman Netherlands is presented here for the first time. Examination of Classical texts and interrogation of the archaeobotanical data allow the authors to place the discovery at Houten-Castellum of a hollowed bone containing hundreds of black henbane seeds within the context of the wider Roman understanding of the plant and its properties.
Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is an extremely poisonous plant species that can also be used as a medicinal or psychoactive drug. It is a ruderal species, preferring dry, nutrient-rich natural and anthropogenic habitats on disturbed soils (Weeda et al. Reference Weeda, Westra, Westra and Westra 1988: 187). Macrofossils of black henbane are found in numerous archaeological features in north-western Europe from the Neolithic onwards (e.g. Otte & Mattonet Reference Otte, Mattonet and Brandes 2001; Herbig Reference Herbig, Stobbe and Tegtmeier 2012; RADAR, 2018 data). Due to the occurrence of black henbane as a weed in and around settlements, it is notoriously difficult to interpret the significance of these finds, although some archaeological evidence does suggest that its psychoactive properties were understood and exploited by people (e.g. Knörzer Reference Knörzer 1965; Penz et al. Reference Pentz, Baastrup, Karg and Mannering 2009; Herbig Reference Herbig, Stobbe and Tegtmeier 2012).