York ‘Superstar’ Gladiator Remains on Tour

From the Northern Echo:

NEARLY 2,000 years after they wowed the bloodthirsty crowds in the arena, six skeletons thought to be the remains of Roman gladiators will go on display today.

The skeletons were discovered in York, but are on temporary display in Durham City as the centrepiece of a new exhibition.

Laid out in glass-topped display cases, the skeletons are thought to have been the Premier League football stars of their day, gladiators gathered from the far corners of the Empire and as famous as today’s sports stars.

Excavation leader Kurt Hunter-Mann, from York Archaeological Trust, said analysis had shown the skeletons came from a range of backgrounds. Some were native Yorkshiremen and others had lived near the North Sea, while others were from the Alps, Mediterranean, Africa and Germania, which lay outside the Empire and includes modern Germany.

He said: “Like good footballers, if you look around the Premier League teams, there are Africans and Europeans and a mix of people.

“A lot of gladiators were seen as sporting superstars.

“Some were buried with a lot of honours and grave goods or had a very impressive tombstone.”

Several bear what appear to be the scars of the arena, blunt trauma wounds, animal bites consistent with a beast such as a tiger and, in many cases, they had been decapitated.

Decapitation is thought to have been practised in some parts of Roman society as part of the funeral rite, perhaps to let the spirit leave the body. But the skeletons found at York appear to have met a more brutal end, in some cases their heads being hacked off, which was perhaps the fate of losing a bout.

Mr Hunter-Mann said: “There are some decapitations in the rest of the country which are a very careful, surgical cut after death from the front, which suggests some sort of ritual.

“But these are decapitations from the back and in some cases there have been multiple blows.”

Nearly 100 skeletons were excavated from a linear cemetery, perhaps as much as two miles long, that ran alongside the main road into York. The remains appear to show a particular section of the Roman cemetery, with a larger than expected number of young men, many showing trauma injuries, and many more decapitations than in wider Roman society.

The speculation that the find may have been a gladiators’ cemetery led to worldwide publicity, fuelled by a Channel 4 documentary recreating a coliseum, clips of which are being screened during the Durham exhibition.

About 40,000 people saw the skeletons when they were on display at a small exhibition near Jorvik, in York. They have gone on display in Durham while experts from the university carry out detailed analysis on the bones, which may help prove or disprove the theory that they were gladiators.

Dr Anwen Caffell, of Durham University, who is involved in the research, said: “I feel very privileged to be involved with it.

“Every case is interesting in its own way.

“You have to remember they are real people and treat them with respect, but you also have to retain objectivity and record the information correctly.”

I’m not sure we had this ‘hacked off from behind’ detail before, which I don’t think would be consistent with a coup de grace gladiator-style (which would be from the front). This would likely support my earlier argument that this suggest execution in an arena situation (as opposed to ‘gladiating’proper); I wonder if it’s possible to determine whether the death-dealing blows came from ‘above’ from someone, e.g., on horseback … our previous coverage: York “Gladiators” On Display