Enigmatic decapitated Roman skeletons include man born in Middle East and could have been gladiators, criminals or soldiers, say archaeologists in York

By Ben Miller | 19 January 2016

Technology which could change our understanding of skeletons helps show Middle Eastern origins of man who could have been one of several headless gladiators

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
One of the skeletons excavated by the York Archaeological Trust at Driffield Terrace© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
A set of Roman-age decapitated bodies found in York could have been murdered gladiators, say archaeologists who used technology they are describing as “the next step on from DNA analysis” to analyse seven chosen skeletons, including one local resident born in the Middle East.

Perimortem executions were common among the remains of more than 80 people discovered beneath the city’s Driffield Terrace, all aged around 45 with their skulls variously buried on their chest, between their legs and at their feet.

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
One of the Roman-age skulls© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
Childhood deprivation and battle injuries were also observed within a group of men experts from the York Archaeological Trust believe were skilled at wielding weapons.

Genomic analysis, carried out by a team from Trinity College Dublin in a move allowing whole genome analysis to be carried out on seven of the bodies, has shown that one of the Romans grew up in Palestine, Jordan or Syria – far from the Welsh, East Anglian and Dutch origins revealed by the rest of the results.

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
The burials were excavated between 2004 and 2005© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
“It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent,” says Professor Dan Bradley, of the Molecular Population Genetics Laboratory.

“Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicate six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East.”

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
The Roman-age skeletons laid out in York's Guildhall© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
Most of the samples exhibited genomes similar to an earlier Iron Age woman discovered in Melton, a village in North Yorkshire.

The East Anglian and Dutch evidence came from a man buried in a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the Teesside village of Norton, while the nearest modern descendants of the men live in Wales.

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
A cervical (neck) vertebrae of decapitations from the skeletons© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
“This new genomic and isotopic research can not only tell us about the body we see, but about its origins,” says Christine McDonnell, the Head of Curatorial and Archive Services at the York Archaeological Trust.

“That is a huge step forward in understanding populations, migration patterns and how people moved around the ancient world.

“This hugely exciting work will become the new standard for understanding the origins of skeletons in the future.

“As the field grows, and costs of undertaking this kind of investigation fall, we’ll be able to refine our knowledge of exactly where the bodies were born to a much smaller region. That is a remarkable advance.”

Experts from the universities of Durham, Reading and Sheffield, University College London and the University Medical Centre in Utrecht were also involved in the research.

Roman skeletons

A photo of a skeleton excavated by archaeologists in the ground
© York Archaeological Trust / York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
  • The skeletons sampled were all male and under 45 years old. Most had evidence of decapitation.

  • They suffered childhood stress and poor health but their robust skeletons may have helped their later traumas heal.

  • They were taller than average for Roman Britain and displayed evidence of significant, potentially violent trauma.

  • All but one would have had brown eyes and black or brown hair. But one had distinctive blue eyes and blond hair similar to the single Anglo-Saxon individual.

  • Their demographic profile resembles the population structure in a Roman burial ground believed to be for gladiators at Ephesus.

  • But the evidence could also fit a military context: the Roman army had a minimum recruitment height and fallen soldiers would match the age profile of the York cemetery.

Visit the trust's Gladiators page for more.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see skeletons in

Rugby Art Gallery and Museum
Among the many exhibits on display in the Jack Lucas Gallery are a full skeleton of a human girl and a beautifully detailed belt-buckle depicting two peacocks by a tree. Both of these finds have been dated to the fourth century AD.

Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery
Explore evidence from York and Shropshire, including the burials of a woman and a man and objects that relate to everyday life in Viking-age Britain, in the current exhibition, Valhalla – Life and Death in Viking Britain. Until June 5 2016.

Hull and East Riding Museum
By the fifth century AD German settlers were living in East Yorkshire. Finds from the region also reflect overseas trade, with imported objects ranging from silver coins minted in Frisia to a fine bronze Coptic bowl from Egypt. Visit the Saxons and Vikings Gallery to discover more.
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