The Romans Stashed Hallucinogenic Seeds in a Vial Made From an Animal Bone

What’s pop­u­lar in the metrop­o­lis soon­er or lat­er makes its way out into the provinces. This phe­nom­e­non has become more dif­fi­cult to notice in recent years, not because it’s slowed down, but because it’s sped way up, owing to near-instan­ta­neous cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion on the inter­net. Well with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, how­ev­er, are the days when what­ev­er was cool in, say, New York or Los Ange­les would take time to catch on in the rest of the US. This went for fash­ions, movies, and bands, of course, but also for mind-alter­ing sub­stances: dis­tant-future archae­ol­o­gists are as like­ly to unearth a Vel­vet Under­ground album and the remains of its own­er’s stash in the ruins of Cleve­land as those of Chelsea.

A rough­ly anal­o­gous dis­cov­ery from the ancient world was recent­ly made by Dutch zooar­chae­ol­o­gists Maaike Groot and Martijn van Haasteren and archaeob­otanist Lau­ra I. Koois­trawho this past Feb­ru­ary pub­lished a paper in the jour­nal Antiq­ui­ty on “evi­dence of the inten­tion­al use of black hen­bane (Hyoscya­mus niger) in the Roman Nether­lands.” A mem­ber of the night­shade fam­i­ly, black hen­bane is “an extreme­ly poi­so­nous plant species that can also be used as a med­i­c­i­nal or psy­choac­tive drug,” the researchers write. It may have been the lat­ter pur­pose that encour­aged the cre­ation of a pecu­liar arti­fact: “a sheep/goat bone that had been hol­lowed out, sealed on one side by a plug of a black mate­r­i­al and filled with hun­dreds of black hen­bane seeds.”

“Phys­i­o­log­i­cal reac­tions to black hen­bane were well doc­u­ment­ed through­out the Ancient Mediter­ranean world,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Elaine Velie. She quotes Greek philoso­pher Plutarch as describ­ing its effects as “not so prop­er­ly called drunk­en­ness” but rather “alien­ation of mind or mad­ness.” Pliny the Elder “dis­cussed the plant’s med­i­c­i­nal, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, and poten­tial­ly lethal effects, not­ing that although it could be tak­en to heal ail­ments rang­ing from coughs to fever, the drug could also cause insan­i­ty and derange­ment. The Greek and Roman physi­cian Dioscorides wrote that black hen­bane and its close cousins could alle­vi­ate pain, but cause dis­ori­en­ta­tion when boiled.”

It would be nat­ur­al to assume that this hol­lowed-out, plugged bone func­tioned as some kind of pipe for smok­ing hen­bane. Though Groot, van Haasteren, and Koois­tra don’t find evi­dence for that, nei­ther do they rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it was the stash box, if you like, of some res­i­dent of the Roman Nether­lands two mil­len­nia ago. Groot points out to Velie the espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ing ele­ment of a “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.” Though far from Rome itself, this hen­bane stash’s own­er pre­sum­ably used it how­ev­er the Romans did. If it met with dis­ap­proval, this indi­vid­ual could have resort­ed to a still-famil­iar refrain: “Hey, it’s med­i­c­i­nal.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Humans First Start­ed Enjoy­ing Cannabis in Chi­na Cir­ca 2800 BC

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

Pipes with Cannabis Traces Found in Shakespeare’s Gar­den, Sug­gest­ing the Bard Enjoyed a “Not­ed Weed”

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Mar­i­jua­na (1969)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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