‘Gladiator burial ground’ discovered in York
Dozens of skeletons found beneath the garden of a former 18th Century mansion are probably those of professional fighters who fought, and died, for the entertainment of the ruling Romans.
The remains of around 80 people were discovered during building work at a site to the west of the city centre in 2004, but their likely origins are only now being revealed thanks to extensive forensic analysis.
Almost all the corpses are of robust young males, many of whom met their death by decapitation between the late first and fourth centuries AD.
Archaeologists initially suspected that they were Roman soldiers loyal to Emperor Severus who were executed in the bloody aftermath of his traitorous son Caracalla‘s coup in 211 AD.
But researchers from the York Archaeological Trust, which is leading the investigation, have now discovered tantalising evidence that the men were actually Gladiators brought to Britain from across the Mediterranean to fight at an as-yet-undiscovered amphitheatre.
Kurt Hunter-Mann, a field officer at the trust, said: “One of the most significant items of evidence is a large carnivore bite mark – probably inflicted by a lion, tiger or bear – an injury which must have been sustained in an arena context.”
The majority of the men had sustained brutal weapon injuries consistent with gladiatorial combat. Close scrutiny of the skeletons also showed that many of the dead had one arm that was stronger than the other – an indication that they had been trained to use large weapons from a young age.
Furthermore, damage sustained by their skulls suggested that some of the men had been killed by a hammer blow to the head, a gladiatorial “coup de grace” for which evidence has also been uncovered at a major Roman graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey.
The researchers have made clear that the gladiator explanation is just their “lead theory” and that more study is required. But academics have said that the find could put Britain at the forefront of Roman Empire archaeology.
Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, which helped analyse the bones, said: “These are internationally important discoveries. We don’t have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world.”
Amphitheatres have been discovered at several old Roman settlements across England, including Chester and Cirencester, although not in York.
Some Roman amphitheatres were made from wood, meaning their locations may never be identified.
Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and an expert in ancient history, cautioned that alternative explanations for the identities of the York bodies deserved further investigation, but said that the find was “very exciting stuff”.
He said: “If you have decapitations there’s something pretty remarkable about the burials. These are not ordinary people who have had ordinary deaths.”
Prof Wallace-Hadrill added that advances in modern pathology were throwing new light on historical remains.
“Skeletons can be incredibly eloquent,” he said. “We can now learn so much about the living person from their skeleton – far more than just age and sex.”