Decapitated Roman men found in London stream could have been gladiators

By Ben Miller | 20 January 2014

Experts say a set of severed skulls provide a "fascinating insight" into the violence of Roman London

A photo of a scan showing a human skull against darkness
A digital radiograph showing a healed fracture (arrowed) to the left zygomatic bone of one of 39 skulls found in Walbrook Valley. Experts say the remains could have come from gladiators© Museum of London
The decapitated remains of 40 young Roman men, found in a Walbrook stream in London in 1989 but only fully researched thanks to the latest technologies, are likely to represent the victims of Roman “headhunting” and gladiatorial combat – the first ritual burial of its kind to be discovered in the city.

Suffering from direct, blunt force blows to their face, mouth and lobes, the stab wounds on the bones, totalling 39 skulls and one femur largely buried between 160 and 120 AD, echo the sadistic beheadings and murders uncovered by finds such as the bog bodies of north-west England, a mutilated, deliberately defleshed skull found at a 2nd century pit in St Albans and the gruesome injuries revealed at ditches on former military settlements in Canterbury, Colchester and York.

“There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare or other acts of organised violence in London during the period that these human remains date from,” explains Dr Rebecca Redfern, a research osteologist at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, which looks after more than 17,000 excavated skeletal remains.

“Therefore we had to seek an alternative line of enquiry, based on thorough forensic analysis of their injuries.

“It has led us to two possible outcomes – that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman headhunting.

“It is a tantalising prospect. The view of bloodthirsty Romans has wide currency, but this is the first time that we have evidence of these types of violent acts in London.

“The next step is to look at where these people came from.”

The research, which has been outlined in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggests the skulls could have been “trophy heads”.

“The prevalence of trauma and young adult males from this site indicates that these individuals probably met a violent end,” believes Heather Bonney, an Earth Sciences expert at the Natural History Museum who carried out microscopic analysis on the remains.

“Their heads were then separated and deposited. Some individuals also had numerous injuries sustained during life, which provide a fascinating insight into violent activities in Roman London."

Gladiators in London

  • The majority of the sample were adult males who had evidence for multiple peri-mortem blunt- and sharp- force injuries; many also had healed injuries, suggesting that violence was a common feature of their life
  • Despite the fact that this material was recovered from an industrial area, the evidence for trauma, their context and associated archaeological and environmental evidence reveals that these deposits are markedly different from other published examples of human remains from the Walbrook stream - an area renowned for its cranial discoveries - and the River Thames
  • The most popular and enduring interpretations for crania recovered from watery sites in London is that they either represent the inhabitants of Roman London (Londinium) who were massacred during the Boudican rebellion (AD 60-61), or a legion of Roman soldiers who were decapitated by allies of Julius Asclepiodotus, a Roman praetorian prefect who, in AD 296, was responsible for restoring Roman rule in the province
  • Gladiators have become synonymous with amphitheatre games, where heavily or lightly armed combatants would fight other gladiators, animals or prisoners condemned to death. These combatants came from a variety of backgrounds, including the military, the enslaved, criminals and free citizens. They lived and trained in special schools (ludi), many of which were state-owned and fought in amphitheatres across the Empire,  usually fighting only two or three times a year
  • Evidence suggests that their average age at death was between 22 and 27 years old. Their chance of survival has been estimated to range between eight out of 10 fights (during the 1st century) to five out of 10 fights (between the 2nd and 3rd centuries)
  • Gladiatorial combat became closely associated with political power, and has been considered to reflect the physical embodiment of Empire, through the meting out justice and assertion of Roman authority. This activity meant that despite their huge popularity, they were social outsiders excluded from formal burial grounds
  • Many gladiators paid into burial clubs or for the funerals of fallen comrades. At one amphitheatre in Trier, Germany, mutilated skeletons or body parts were found in hastily-dug graves. In Britain, several amphitheatres associated with urban settlements are known, although no cemeteries or burials like Trier have been discovered

A close up photo of an ancient human skull
A healed fracture of the left cheekbone© Heather Bonney / Museum of London
A photo of a brown section of ancient human jaw
Adult male jaw with evidence of dog gnawing© Museum of London
A photo of a long section of dark brown human bone
Inferior view of a sharp-force weapon injury (decapitation)© John Chase, Museum of London
A close up photo of a brown section of ancient male human skull
Basilar view of the left occipital and temporal bones showing the sharp-force injuries and peri-mortem fractures© John Chase, Museum of London
A photo of a section fo dark brown human skull from Roman London
View of the inner table of an occipital bone© John Chase, Museum of London
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