Friday, January 17, 2014

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Mystery of York's 'Headless Romans' 

York Archaeological Trust undertook excavations during 2004 and 2005 in advance of construction work on two sites close to the line of one of the main roads out of the Roman town. Archaeologists suspected the probability of finding further burials there as Roman graves had been previously found in the area on the outskirts of Eboracum, the name of the Roman town of York, and Roman cemeteries were often placed alongside roads outside the city walls.

These excavations at the site of a 3rd century Roman burial ground at Driffield Terrace in York revealed 80 burials, of which 60 were mostly complete. The vast majority were well-built adult males, averaging some 2 cms (one inch) taller than the average male from Roman Britain, their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion; most of these people had died violently. About 45 of the 60 mostly complete skeletons, showed signs of decapitation, with about 20 showing evidence of injuries that had penetrated bone which would have almost certainly been fatal blows. About a third had suffered wounds and fractures that had healed and no doubt there were probably other wounds that had penetrated only the soft tissue leaving no evidence.

Decapitated and mutilated burials similar to these are known from other cemeteries in Roman Britain, but the York cemetery seems to have an unusually high proportion; a very unusual type of population for a typical Roman cemetery. However, despite the evidence for a generally hard and violent life and brutal death, these people had all been carefully buried between the late 1st and early 4th centuries AD, sometimes with grave goods such as pottery and food, at a cemetery
Although headless burials are not unknown, to see so many in the same place is unprecedented anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most intriguing is what had been done with the skulls of the skeletons; of the decapitated skeletons, about 30 were buried with their heads placed on their shoulders but others had their heads placed between their knees, on their chests or by their feet. In one double burial the two bodies even had had their heads swapped over.

In 2006, isotope analysis of tooth enamel suggested that the men came from from every corner of the Roman Empire; Britain, the Mediterranean, the Alps and even as far away as North Africa. This has led to suggestions that the 80 men could have been elite Roman soldiers. In 2006 the BBC Timewatch program 'The Mystery of the Headless Romans' put forward the proposal that the men could have been from Emperor Severus' household, executed by the Emperor Caracalla who died, stabbed to death by his own body guard in 217 AD. But this is pure conjecture.

June this year (2010), it was announced York's headless Romans might have been Gladiators and portrayed in the Channel 4 program 'Gladiators: Back from the Dead' with Driffield Terrace being cited as the 'worlds only well-preserved gladiator cemetery'. The key evidence for the gladiator claim is the discovery of a large, carnivore bite mark and a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry due to prolonged weapon wielding from an early age. Further evidence in support of the gladiator claim is the healed and unhealed weapon injuries and possible hammer blows to the head; a feature attested at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, the first authenticated gladiators graveyard.
The remains of 67 individuals was discovered in 2007 at Ephesus, Turkey, nearly all aged between 20 to 30. Many with evidence of healed wounds, suggesting they were prized individuals receiving expensive medical care; one body even possesses signs of a surgical amputation. Pathologists discovered various unhealed wounds on bones, for example tell-tale nicks in the vertebrae, suggesting at least some of the bodies suffered a fate of execution being consistent with depictions on reliefs from the time showing a kneeling man having a sword rammed down his throat into the heart. A very quick way to die.

Bioarchaeological Analysis

To shed some light on these mysterious skeletal remains a scientific team under Gundula Müldner, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Reading with colleagues from Reading and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, recently carried out multi-isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains.

Scientists normally only examine strontium and oxygen isotopic systems to calculate an individual's origins but on this occasion the scientists took samples of teeth and bone and analysed isotopes of strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, combining information about the individual's diet with the type of climate and geological setting. Isotopes are absorbed by our teeth and bones from our food, drinking water and the air. Their proportions vary around the world due either to differences in regional geology or climate, so they provide important clues about where individuals spent their childhood years. Oxygen (O) and strontium (Sr) are fixed in dental enamel as our teeth form. The enamel does not alter significantly with age, therefore oxygen and strontium levels can be matched fairly closely to the geology and climate of the place an individual grew up. The oxygen and strontium isotopes indicated that just five of the men tested had probably grown up in York.

Müldner's team also tested 68 individuals for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in order to obtain clues about their diet. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes are absorbed from our food and can be measured in dentine or bone collagen samples, providing scientists with information about land and sea foods in an individual's diet as well as the balance of plant and animal protein. They also distinguish plants that photosynthesis in different ways to produce different proportions of the isotopes known as C3 and C4.

In addition, there are two stable carbon isotopes known as C-12 and C-13. The common isotope that makes up about 99% of all natural carbon is C-12 with C-13 only accounting for only about 1%. Plants of the C4 group, which are adapted to hot, dry climates and include maize, sorghum and millet, tend to fix C-13 more readily than C3 group plants, such as wheat, rice and barley, which do better in temperate climates. Thus by measuring the ratio of C-13/C-12 in bone it can be possible to derive the proportion of C3 and C4 plant groups in the diet of the sample.

Of the 68 individuals tested for carbon and nitrogen two in particular had eaten diets with distinctly high carbon isotope ratios, indicating the consumption of C4 plants, or the products of animals raised on them. To have consumed enough of their distinctive diets to produce these unusual isotope results, the scientists concluded that these two individuals must have come from abroad. The only 'C4 plant' cultivated in Europe at the time was millet, but it was almost certainly not grown in Britain during this period, possibly because the climate was too wet. Indeed, millet is not known to have been cultivated in Britain in the Roman period or at any time before.
They discovered that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. The results revealed that at least two had a diet rich in plant during their childhood, consuming C4-plant based protein probably millet, that wasn't grown in Britain at that time. Dr Müldner said, “This approach was very important in this case, because it has given us information about these unusual burials that would have been missed if only strontium and oxygen had been analysed.”

Müldner deduced that as we had not seen similar values in Britain before, nor much in Europe in the Roman Period, the "Headless Romans" likely came from as far away as Eastern Europe, with the evidence of previous combat scars suggesting that the men led violent lives. He added, “the headless Romans are very different [physically] than other people from York, coming from all over the place. Some of them are quite exotic."

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Far from solving the enigma of the 'Headless Romans' the results seem to have deepened the mystery; if they were not local people it raises the question who they were and what were they doing in Roman York?

It has been suggested that if these decapitated individuals who died a violent death were not gladiators or a warrior elite they may have been executed criminals or members of a religious cult who suffered a ritual killing. Post-mortem decapitation is known to have been carried out by superstitious Romans to prevent some people returning as ghosts; the head is thought to be the seat of the soul, consequently if the head is separated from the body the soul escapes and the dead will not be able to walk the earth.


Non-Roman citizens would normally undergo a harsh and degrading execution, such as crucifixion or being thrown to wild animals in the gladiatorial arena. But some, such as early Christian martyrs, appear to have been buried after their execution. Roman citizens could be executed by decapitation although authorities sometimes prevented certain individuals being given a decent burial, perhaps in order to prevent them reaching the afterlife. The suggestion that at least some of the York individuals may have been executed criminals is supported by one of the skeletons being found with heavy lead leg-shackles. A few of the ‘decapitated’ burials show no signs of cuts on the vertebrae possibly as a result of hanging, which would have been followed by burial some days afterwards when the head may have become detached from the body. The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant as death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence where it can easily be seen by many. But it is unlikely criminals would have been given such a burial.

Ritual Killings

The Celts venerated the head as the seat of the soul and are well attested for their cult of the head and these beliefs persisted into the Roman period. It has been suggested that the decapitations and the additional injuries are reminiscent of ritual killing by way of the triple death of human sacrifices as practised in the pre-Roman world of the Celts. The sacrifice of adults for religious reasons was banned by the Emperor Augustus, however this does not necessarily mean that such practices did not continue and deposits of horse and other animal bones with some the burials, along with other grave goods, suggest that ritual played a part in many of the burials.

Warrior Elite

The vast majority of the burial group being well-built adult males, taller than the average male, with their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion with most bearing evidence of a violent death, immediately suggests an elite group of warriors provided with special status amongst society.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st Century AD, describes how the Catti warriors were given elite status amongst the tribe and took part in Arminius' Germanic tribal coalition that annihilated Varus' legions in 9 AD in the Teutoburg Forest. Soldiers were executed for desertion and other court martial offences, which could result in punishment by decapitation. Alternatively, the injuries may have been the result of soldiers killed in battle and whose bodies were recovered by their own side and given a decent burial. But this would not explain the pelvic injury apparently caused by a large carnivore as seen on one of the skeletons.


It is estimated that up to a million gladiators are thought to have died in arenas across the Roman Empire. Roman Britain was second only to Italy in the number of purpose-built gladiatorial arenas in Europe. It is assumed York had its own amphitheatre, although evidence of it remains elusive, so the presence of gladiators here should not be surprising.

All the Driffield Terrace individuals were male and the majority killed by decapitation, suggesting an unusual group of people. These people were taller than the average Romano-British male and more robust. Significantly in about a third of the skeletons, one arm slightly longer than the other, the right humerus of one skeleton being 18mm longer than the left, suggesting one-sided work from an early age, perhaps representing prolonged sword practice. Although we cannot rule out the possibility of other occupations, such as archery or blacksmithing, which may also cause the over-development of one arm, it would seem unlikely to be a group of smiths. Men with similar asymmetry, muscular arms, have been excavated at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey.

Blunt force trauma, i.e. a blow to the head, found on a number of the York skeletons appears to be evidence of methods that were used to kill vanquished or dying gladiators by a slave in the arena dressed as the god of the Underworld and armed with a large iron mallet who despatched any fatally wounded gladiator with a sharp blow to the head.

The Injuries to the pelvis are consistent with carnivore toothmarks, evidence perhaps of a gladiator being bitten about the hip by a large carnivore such as a lion or a bear. Gladiator versus animal fights were common events in the arena and undertaken by a specially trained and equipped fighter known as the bestiarii or venatores. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of a common Roman method of execution, in which criminals were tied to a post in the arena and left to the mercy of beasts.

The 'gladiatorial' explanation of these decapitated burials at York seems the more likely with the use of the cemetery at Driffield Terrace being continued for some time in different phases, dating from the early 3rd to 4th century, indicating that this was not a single mass event, but occurred over a number of years and corresponds with deaths from gladiatorial combat which appear to have risen in Roman Britain at this time. Evidence from tombstones suggest an average age of 27 for gladiators.

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