Headless Gladiator Graveyard Unearthed

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All of the skeletons appear to have suffered from violent deaths, from beheading to animal mauling, researchers said on Monday.
York Archaeological Trust

THE GIST

- Archaeologists believe they have found the world's best-preserved gladiator cemetery in York, England.

- The 2,000-year-old skeletons appear to have suffered violent injuries usually sustained in a Roman amphitheater.

- Most of the skeletons were violently decapitated and appeared to have been buried with some respect.

Archaeologists believe they have found the world's best-preserved gladiator cemetery in York after unearthing skeletons that suffered the kind of violent injuries usually sustained in a Roman amphitheater, researchers said on Monday.

The York Archaeological Trust has dug up 80 skeletons that date from the first century AD to 4 AD. They were found at the Driffield Terrace site in York where excavation work started in 2004.

Gladiators -- famously depicted in Hollywood films by Russell Crowe and Kirk Douglas -- were trained fighters who entertained Roman crowds in savage clashes against other warriors and ferocious animals.

Forensic tests carried out on the skeletons show that the majority of the deceased were male, very robust and mostly above average height.

Most of the skeletons were violently decapitated and appeared to have been buried with some respect.

One of the biggest clues that the deceased might have been gladiators came when the research team found bite marks on one of the skeletons.

"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," said Kurt Hunter-Mann, who is leading the investigation.

Many of the skeletons also had one arm that was stronger than the other, consistent with the frequent handling of a weapon.

"The arm asymmetry would also be consistent with weapons training that had already started in teenage years," Hunter-Mann said, "and we know from Roman accounts that some gladiators entered their profession at a very young age."

Yet he warned that the evidence was not conclusive. "At present our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators. So far there are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards that interpretation or are consistent with it. But the research is continuing and we must therefore keep an open mind."

Amphitheatres have been discovered at several old Roman settlements across England, although archaeologists have yet to find evidence of a gladiator arena in York.

The researchers have also considered that the remains in York might belong to soldiers, but this theory has been undermined by the large number of decapitations.

Another potential theory is that the dead were all criminals, but Hunter-Mann believes this explanation is undermined by the respect they were shown by the way they were buried.

Additional research into the skeletons was carried out by forensic anthropologists at the University of Central Lancashire.

"These are internationally important discoveries. We don't have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world," said Dr Michael Wysocki, a senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire.