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Gladiator Graveyard in Yorkshire? You Decide!

June 16, 2010

This is not “do you want a gladiator graveyard in Yorkshire?” but “is there already a gladiator graveyard in Yorkshire?” Let me explain. . .

Scientists at the York Archaeological Trust have discovered 80 unusual skeletons in Yorkshire, 200 miles north of London. The bodies date to between the 1st and 4th century AD, within the period that the Romans occupied much of what is now Britain. Based on the physical evidence at the site, the Trust is speculating that the skeletons could belong to a group of ancient Roman gladiators.

Why gladiators?

The burials are part of a larger cemetery on the outskirts of the Roman settlement, but the skeletons are unusual for several reasons. First, and most striking, most of the bodies have detached heads. That is, the men they belonged to (all the skeletons of interest are male) could have been beheaded before (or as a cause of) death.  There is other evidence (blunt force trauma to the head, healed fractures of other bones) to suggest that the skeletons belonged to people who lived brutal lives and died violently. However, these people were often buried with ritualistic gifts of food and other possessions, suggesting they had some measure of respect in life.

Second, the majority of the skeletons belonged to unusually large men. The skeletons were a couple of inches taller than the average 1st century Roman. The bones from these skeletons were also heavier, with patterning on the bones indicating that they were attached to well-developed muscles. Interestingly, many of the men have one arm that is slightly longer than the other, suggesting the men did something extensively to develop one arm over the other (sword fighting? manual labor? It’s impossible to be certain). Even more intriguing, one skeleton has tooth marks on some bones consistent with bite marks from a lion or tiger. Given that lions and tigers were not roaming free in the wilds of Northern Britain during the 1st century, the idea is that the only way a large carnivore could have gnawed on the bones is as part of a Roman spectacle.

What are some other possible explanations?

Unfortunately, there is no sign in the ground saying “here lies a bunch of ancient Roman gladiators,” so gladiator graveyard is just one possible educated guess about the site. The Trust is quick to point out that the available evidence could have other explanations. The site could be a burial ground for criminals, Christian martyrs, Roman soldiers, or a mix of all these. Ordinary Roman citizens could be executed by beheading for a variety of crimes, so it is not entirely unusual to find headless bodies in Roman cemetaries. Christian martyrs and prisoners were often thrown to the lions for execution and spectacle, so that could explain the bite marks, but what about the ritual gifts? Criminals were not exactly venerated members of society. Roman soldiers would also have been larger than average men with arms developed through sword fighting, and soldiers could be executed by beheading for desertion or other crimes against the military. But would executed soldiers still be buried in individual graves with ritual gifts?

How can you get involved?

To help people understand the thought process behind interpreting the physical evidence at this site, they are letting the public vote on what they think is the best interpretation of the evidence. The Trust has put an explanation of the physical evidence and summaries of how this evidence fits four possible theories on its website. To participate, go to www.headlessromans.co.uk — gotta love that URL — have a look at the arguments and vote!


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