Archaeologists excavating a Roman burial site in York believe they may have found the largest, best preserved gladiator cemetery in the world. The previous contender was in Ephesus, Turkey, and had about 60 people buried there and their remains were fragmentary. The York graveyard has yielded 80 skeletons over the past 10 years, many of them complete.
The ages, body types and violently-inflicted injuries on the bones mark many of these skeletons as belonging to gladiators or to other people who died in the arena. One man was killed by a large carnivore of some kind — lion, tiger or bear — and others bear wounds from weapons. Almost all the skeletons are male of above average height and build. Although they died at different times over a range of 250 years and came from all over the Roman Empire, 85% of the skeletons show remarkably similar physical stresses, primarily on the right arms.
One important piece of evidence is the unusually high number of men with their right arms markedly longer than their left – a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with gladiators.
About a quarter of the 80 skeletons excavated at the York site display this characteristic, and around half of those have particularly significant asymmetry, with right arms between 1 and 1.8cm longer than their left, according to a detailed survey of the material carried out by forensic anthropologists at the University of Central Lancashire.
The discovery suggests that some men started their training at an early age, probably in their early to mid teens. Arm length asymmetry can only develop prior to reaching skeletal maturity.
Most of them were decapitated before death by a sword blow to the back of the head, which suggests that at least in York, the fatal blow was a head chopping rather than the more traditional stab in the neck. Some of the skulls had holes in them like the ones found in the Ephesus cemetery, suggesting they died from a hammer to the head.
All of the men were buried respectfully, so they can’t have been raiders like the decapitated Vikings found in pit in Dorset. Fourteen of them were buried with grave goods like pottery and animal remains, so they had property worth bringing with them to the underworld and maybe even the support of a burial guild ensuring that proper sacrifices were made for their dead brethren.
The most impressive is that of a tall man aged between 18 and 23, buried (probably in a coffin) in a large oval grave at some time in the 3rd century. Interred with him are the remains of substantial joints of meat from at least four horses (represented by 424 horse bones) possibly eaten at his funeral, as well as some cow and pig remains. He had been decapitated by several sword blows to the neck. After burial, a low mound up to a metre high seems to have been placed over his grave.
Significantly, the man who had been killed by the bear or lion was buried in an adjacent grave, along with two others with similar ritual deposits. These men had also been decapitated. Scientific analysis of their bones suggests that they came from an extremely hot environment, possibly North Africa.
Now, we still don’t know for sure that all the people buried in this cemetery were gladiators. They could have been soldiers, for instance. Another theory is that it was a burial ground for people classifed as infames.
Infamia was social condemnation brought on by certain professions (prostitution, acting) or by immoral acts (army desertion, adultery, contracting to kill wild animals in the arena for pay). During the Roman Republic infamia resulted in loss of public rights like voting rights and running for certain offices, but by the time Britania was Romanized, those sorts of rights were rendered moot by the very fact of Empire. Infamia also wasn’t gender-specific and it didn’t make your arm longer than your left.
There will be a documentary on the York skeletons shown on Britain’s Channel 4 next Monday, June 14th: Gladiators: Back From The Dead. For those of us out of range of British television, the show will be uploaded to their website after it airs.