Archaeologists Found headless Roman Gladiator Skeletons were excavated from a Roman burial site in England

Archaeologists Found headless skeletons were excavated from a Roman burial site in England
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After 25 years, the mystery behind dozens of mutilated skulls uncovered in London may have been solved — and the solution isn’t very pretty.

Archaeologists now say the 39 skulls are probably all that’s left of young men beheaded by Roman fighters or felled by their opponents in gladiatorial contests almost 2,000 years ago.

The skulls were originally uncovered in 1988 by laborers in the heart of London, according to History.com. They were moved to the Museum of London, where they languished in storage until Dr. Rebecca Redfern, a scientist from the museum’s Center for Human Bio archaeology, decided to give them a new look.

“It is not a pretty picture,” Redfern stated, according to the Guardian. “At least one of the skulls shows proof of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open.”

These decapitated remains found in York belonged to a male who may have been a Retiarii gladiator, who fought with a net and spear or trident.
These decapitated remains found in York belonged to a male who may have been a Retiarii gladiator, who fought with a net and spear or trident.

 

A large portion of the skeletons found at this site were of males younger than 45 who were taller than average and showed evidence of trauma, slices cuts to their arms and fingers, the archaeologists stated. Famously, the majority of them had been beheaded.

These standout traits led some specialists to suggest that this was a burial site for gladiators. However, it is also possible that these men were in the military, which, in Roman times, had a minimum height requirement, the researchers said. 

“It was a very curious gathering of individuals with their heads cut off, who may or may not be gladiators,” said Matthew Collins, a professor of prehistoric studies at the University of York and one of the paper’s authors.

The distinctiveness of these remaining parts were featured in two documentaries in the years following the excavation, “Timewatch: The mystery of the headless Romans” in 2006 and “Gladiators: Back From the Dead” in 2010.

Etching showing Roman gladiators vanquishing their opponents.
Etching showing Roman Gladiators vanquishing their opponents.

 

In the new examination, Collins and his colleagues collected high-quality DNA samples from the dense petrous bone of the inner ears from the skeletons.

In total, 9 genomes were compared: 7 from the York Romans (all male) and 2 from skeletons found in other cemeteries, including 1 from a more ancient Iron Age female and one from a more recent Anglo-Saxon male.

The genomes from the executed Romans were found to be similar to the Iron Age genome but significantly different from the Anglo-Saxon genome.

This recommends that the Roman Empire’s genetic influence on Britain was not nearly as strong as its cultural influence, the researchers said.

“We are used to the idea of the Romans coming in and evolving things,” Collins said. “Yes, they changed things, but the people fundamentally did not change.”  

The results additionally indicate that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the Dark Ages had a greater effect on the genetic makeup of Britain than did the Roman Empire. Regardless, this period of history is still covered in mystery, the researchers said.

The new investigation also revealed that the York Romans were genetically similar to modern-day British Celtic populations, especially the Welsh.

This makes sense, the researchers stated, given the movement of people from central Britain to the margins of the country following Anglo-Saxon attacks. 

In addition to their more savage injuries, the Roman skeletons seemed to have experienced infections and childhood stress, the archaeologists said. Their genomes, in combination with proof from studying different forms of elements (isotopes) and how they changed over time, showed that six of the seven were British, but one was from the Middle East, possibly Lebanon or Syria.

This surprising finding is an example of how dynamic the Roman Empire was — and brings to mind the present-day diaspora occurring in the Middle East, Collins said. It’s possible that most of these men had brown eyes and black or brown hair, yet one may have been blue-eyed and blond — the same as the Anglo-Saxon man, the Archaeologist said.

These remains have been studied widely, however the sequencing of their DNA is a major achievement, the Archaeologist said.

In their paper, they called this “the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries A.D.” Collins said that the researchers could not have attempted such a feat when the skeletons were first discovered because the approximate cost would have been about $70 million. (With technological advances, the expense of such analyses has gone down, according to the Human Genome Project.)

Collins noted that the work embodies a new stage in archaeology. “The excitement is, we are now      innovatively able to do this kind of work, which is mind-boggling when you consider the great achievement of sequencing the first human genome was less than 15 years prior, and now we can sequence the genomes of Romans from York and Anglo-Saxons in Cambridge,” Collins said. “It’s just absolutely exceptional.”


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.