British archeologists are speculating that a graveyard they have excavated in the city of York, England may be a burial ground for gladiators who fought and died during the Roman occupation of Britain.
According to Agence France-Press (AFP), 80 well preserved skeletons, which were buried between the 1st & 4th centuries A.D., have been unearthed by the York Archaeological Trust. The archaeologists are being aided by forensic anthropologists from the University of Central Lancashire.
The dig began in 2004, after the remains were discovered during a construction project.
Invasion & Occupation
A Roman invasion force under Julius Caesar first invaded what is now Kent in two expeditions in 55 and 54 B.C.E.. However, Julius Caesar had been dead for nearly a full century when the Roman conquest of Britain began in earnest in 43 A.D. under Emperor Claudius, the great-great grandnephew of Julius and the grand-nephew of August, the first Caesar (Emperor).
What is now England and Wales was finally subdued in toto by 84 A.D., after the rebellion of Boudica in East Anglia in 60 or 61 A.D. was put down. Caledonia (Scotland) was never conquered, and the Romans eventually built Hadrian’s Wall in what is now northern England to contain the indigenous tribes. (Another series of fortifications, Antoine’s Wall, was built in Caledonia proper but abandoned after only 20 years.)
York, which was founded by the Romans in 71 A.D. as “Eboracum,” is approximately 83 miles (134 kilometers) south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Britain remained a part of the Roman Empire until 410 A.D. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, initially lived in Britain after his elevation. In fact, he was invested Emperor in York in the year 306 A.D., when it was a major military outpost, used for raids on Caledonia.
While Britain has many amphitheaters left over from Roman times, archeologists have never found what is conclusively an arena for gladiatorial combat, such as the Colosseum in Rome, in York or surrounding North Yorkshire County.
The British Museum claims there is evidence that gladiatorial combat did take place in Roman Britain.
Forensic examination of the 83 skeletons so far uncovered indicates that they likely are from the corpses of gladiators, according to AFP, as most were male, of a strong physical type and of above average height. They also reveal that one of their arms was more developed than the other, which signifies that they likely had weapons training.
Gladiators in Roman times began to train early in life, frequently in their teens, which created asymmetrical bodies.
The skeletons of the buried revealed healed and unhealed wounds inflicted by swords, axes and blows to the head with a hammer.
Another indicator of the likelihood the York archeologists have uncovered a gladiator graveyard is that most of the skeletons were decapitated. A photo of the dig shows that the head of one of the deceased was placed between his knees, a sign of respect that would indicate these were not the remains of criminals who had been executed.
According to the Web site Heritage Key, “one 18-23-year-old man had been laid to rest with the remains of four horses and pig and cow bones,” a sign of respect. However, there were few items buried with most of the other remains.
The fact that a large number of the skeletons had been violently decapitated also seems to indicate that they are not the remains of soldiers.
The most significant indicator that the deceased in the graveyard were gladiators is the evidence of bite marks on one of the skeletons, another indicator.
AFP quoted lead archeologist Kurt Hunter-Mann as saying, “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.”
There were no lions or tigers in ancient Britain, but they might have been imported to York, which was a major city. The citizens and soldiers of Roman York likely imported the customs of the Roman patria, part of which was the Venatio (the hunt), in which gladiators fought to subdue wild beasts.
The European brown bear, which has been extinct in Britain for 1,000 years, existed in Roman times. Britons kept herds of bears, though, after they disappeared from British forests, to practice bear-baiting, which was a popular blood “sport” up through the 19th century, when it was finally outlawed.
When the burial site was first uncovered in 2004, the discovery of the first group of 60 skeletons, many of whom had been decapitated, was first thought to have been the result of cult activity, that the deceased had been massacred to appease some ancient tribal gods. (There are female skeletons in the graveyard.)
Other theories was that it might have been a massacre of Christians by the pagan Romans, but they would not have been laid to rest as lovingly as were these remains. That led to speculation that it was the burial site of aristocratic Britains who had rebelled against the Empire, and been executed, but that theory was discarded, too.
Another 23 skeletons were excavated at the site, and the evidence pointing towards the burial site being a gladiators’ graveyard began to mount.
According to the Manchester Guardian, the skeletons also have evidence of hammer-blows to the head and evidence, from tooth enamel, that the group hails from a wide variety of regions in the Roman Empire, including northern Africa.
Roman Gladiators came from all parts of the Empire. They were often decapitated in the ring, and a dying gladiator, who was treated with the respect and adulation of a modern sports star, according The Guardian, often was given a coup de grâce, a hammer blow to the head.
A similar graveyard has been found in Turkey, at Ephesus, featuring skeletons with the same wound marks and in the same honored burial positions.
If the skeletons are determined to be those of gladiators, then it would be a major find as other probable gladiator cemeteries throughout the former Roman Empire do not contain such well-preserved remains.
Agence-France-Presse, “‘Roman gladiator graveyard’ unearthed in Britain”
Daily Telegraph, “Gladiator ‘cemetery’ found in English city of York” (contains photograph of grave)
The Manchester Guardian, “Scars from lion bite suggest headless Romans found in York were gladiators” (contains photograph of grave)