Five gladiator skulls from Londinium 2,000 years ago are about to go on public show

By Angelika Rusbridge | 29 July 2015

Skulls found near ancient Londinium amphitheatre relate drama of 2,000 years ago, resulting in violent deaths and even beheadings

Healed fracture of the left cheekbone
A healed fracture of the left cheekbone in one of the gladiator skulls about to go on display© Heather Bonney - Museum of London
The skulls of five gladiators who met brutal ends in the Roman Amphitheatre of the ancient city of Londinium are about to go on public display.

Exhumed at London Wall in 1988, the skulls belonged to men aged between 25 and 45 at the time of their demise, sometime between 120 AD and 160 AD. Evidence that they suffered violent deaths is uncontested.

Sharp force injury on the base of male head
A sharp force injury on the base of a male head© Museum of London
Damaged jawbones reveal that some of the men were beheaded, and indication of repeated serious injuries, healed before the blows that killed them, are leading to speculation over their roles within the city and nearby fort.

“Given what we know, it is likely that the skulls belonged to men killed at the amphitheatre – possibly criminals or gladiators,” says Dr. Rebecca Redfern, the Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London.

Upside down view of jawline of adult male with sharp force weapon injury
An upside down view of the jawline of an adult male with a sharp force weapon injury© Museum of London
“What is beyond doubt is that these exhibits are stark evidence of violence in a specific part of Roman London.”

The Amphitheatre had a capacity of 7,000 and was initially erected in 70 AD out of wood. By the second century it had been improved with tiled entrances and rag-stone walls.

Adult male jaw with marks of a dog gnawing
Adult male jaw with marks of a dog gnawing providing evidence of remains in an open pit© Museum of London
“The brutality at the heart of the ceremonial, adrenalin-fuelled gladiatorial battles is impossible to ignore when you are confronted by the skulls of the participants revealed here,” admits Dr Redfern.

“Together, these objects bring us closer to the people of London from 2,000 years ago.

View of inner lower skull
A view of an inner lower skull with iron and purple staining© Museum of London
“They are magnificent examples of the ability of archaeology to reveal specific details of life and death in Roman London.”

Glory & Gore
is a new display in London Museum’s Looking for Londoners space and will run from July 31 – November 13 2015.

The Skulls

  • Originally built upon the Amphitheatre grounds in 1885, The Guildhall was destroyed by The Blitz in 1941.

  • Events staged in the Amphitheatre included public executions, animal fights, military parades and gladiatorial battles.

  • Before it was founded, Londinium - or modern-day London - would have consisted of a series of gently rolling hills and open countryside, intersected by a few streams which are now underground.

  • In 60 AD, Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe of Norfolk, razed the entire 40-acred city to the ground. Romans were quick to respond as Londinium’s placement made it tactically valuable.

  • Boudica’s actions resulted in a golden age for the city around the year 100 AD, as trade boomed thanks to merchant ships visiting the city from around the known world.

Three museums to see skulls in:

Leeds Museum Discovery Centre
Only five percent of Leeds Museums and Galleries' collections can be displayed at any one time. But curators still find space for elephant skulls and a medieval log boat.

Salt Museum, Droitwich Spa
In a permanent exhibition showing the fascinating story of the town from pre-Roman times to the modern day, reconstructed faces from Roman skulls reveal incredible facts about their lifestyles and their appearance.

Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust, Port Stanley
The "carefully prepared" skulls of whales here include the Hyperoodon planifrons (southern bottle-nosed), a Meoplodon layardii (strap toothed) and the six-week foetus of a fin whale.
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