Men smoking pipes, Ottoman era, Turkey (Antiller / Flickr)

Medicinal Use of Narcotics Unearthed at Ottoman Archaeological Site in Turkey

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A team of archaeologists carrying out excavations at Kaman-Kalehoyuk in Turkey found evidence of the medicinal use of henbane seeds. The seeds, which were found in an old hearth, have therapeutic uses as well as narcotic and psychotropic effects. The discovery provides the first archaeological evidence for henbane fumigation practices in Asia.

Henbane, whose botanical name is Hyoscyamus niger, is a member of the Solanaceae order of plants, which originated in Eurasia, but is now distributed throughout the world. All Hyoscyamus species contain atropine and scopolamine, particularly concentrated in the seeds, which made it popular in the treatment of various ailments, as well as for the production of ‘magic brews’ that produced psychotropic effects.

Henbane in flower (public domain)

Henbane in flower ( public domain )

“The medicinal uses of Henbane date from remote ages,” reports M Grieve in ‘ A Modern Herbal ’. “It was well known to the Ancients, being particularly commended by Dioscorides (first century AD), who used it to procure sleep and allay pains, and Celsus (same period) and others made use of it for the same purpose, internally and externally, though Pliny declared it to be 'of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding.'”

In the Ottoman era of Turkey, henbane was called beng or benc, and a number of historical literary sources refer to its use for medicinal purposes, including the treatment for toothaches, earaches, eye irritations, and other maladies. The seeds were administered as pills or burned to create smoke that was inhaled, while one historical record dated to 1608 refers to a medicinal recipe containing henbane seeds, black pepper and opium. However, archaeological evidence for the medicinal use of henbane in Asia is non-existent and until now, it was unclear how the Ottomans used henbane medicinally.

The latest study, published in the August edition of the journal Antiquity, was carried out by archaeologists from the University of Queensland in Australia and the Japanese Institute of Anatolian Archaeology, who uncovered a large quantity of henbane seeds in a hearth during excavations of Kaman-Kalehöyük, a central Anatolian multi-period occupation mound.

Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey (Wikimedia Commons)

Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey ( Wikimedia Commons )

Kaman-Kalehöyük is a stratified settlement mound that is located in Kırşehir Province, around 100 km (62.14 miles) south east of Ankara. The archaeological record at Kaman-Kalehöyük covers the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Ottoman periods. However, the discovery of the henbane seeds is associated with the Ottoman occupation phase (15th – 17th centuries).

One hundred and twelve charred henbane seeds were found in an Ottoman tandır or ventilated earth-oven, suggesting that the seeds were used for medicinal fumigation.  

“Henbane's unsuitability as food, fodder or fuel, coupled with the anomalous proportion of henbane seeds…, is strongly indicative of an event of deliberate henbane-seed consumption at Ottoman-period Kaman-Kalehöyük,” report the authors of the study. Traces of livestock dung suggest this was used as the fuel for burning the henbane.

Charred henbane seeds found in the hearth at Kaman-Kalehöyük. Credit: Rohan S.H. Fenwicka and Sachihiro Omuraa

Charred henbane seeds found in the hearth at Kaman-Kalehöyük. Credit: Rohan S.H. Fenwicka and Sachihiro Omuraa

Historical sources suggest that henbane fumigation was used to treat dental problems, particularly the relief of toothaches.

“One must nevertheless fume the open mouth with henbane seeds sprinkled onto coals, directly afterward rinsing the mouth with warm water…; the pain is lifted along with the tar deposited by the fumes.” Compositiones Medicamentorum (47 AD) of Scribonius Largus, physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius (Compositiones X.54; Bernhold 1786: 41).

The high concentration of charred henbane seeds in the Ottoman era hearth is consistent with literary sources referring to henbane fumigation as a treatment for toothaches and other ailments, and provides the first archaeological evidence for the practice in Asia.

Featured image:  Men smoking pipes, Ottoman era, Turkey ( Antiller / Flickr )

By April Holloway


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