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Decapitated Skeletons Likely Those of Roman Gladiators

Thu, 01/21/2016 - 1:01pm
Seth Augenstein, Digital Reporter

One of the skeletons excavated by York Archaeological Trust at Driffield Terrace. (Photo: York Archaeological Trust)Their lives were short, violent – and well-traveled.

Genetic forensic work has provided more clues about the mystery of dozens of Roman-era decapitated bodies found in the gardens of a British mansion.

The men were all likely to have been gladiators – and they were from different locations in the Roman Empire, according to the new study in the journal Nature Communications. The genetic analysis looked at the distinctive isotopes left in the bones of skeletons unearthed in York, a decade ago.

“Archaeology and osteoarchaeology can tell us a certain amount about the skeletons, but this new genomic and isotopic research can not only tell us about the body we see, but about its origins, and that is a huge step forward in understanding populations, migration patterns and how people moved around the ancient world,” said Christine McDonald, of the York Archaeological Trust.

Seven of the 80 skeletons were selected for whole genome analysis. One of the men was from the completely opposite end of the Roman Empire – perhaps around Syria. Others among those sampled have descendants currently living in Wales, Holland, Poland, Germany and France.

READ MORE: Forensic Evidence of Julius Caesar's Conquests in Europe

All the men were younger than 45 when they were killed. They were also taller than average Roman Britons – meaning they could potentially be soldiers, since there was a height requirement in the Empire’s military.

The skeletons, it had previously been noted, showed evidence of poor childhood health – which eventually gave way to robust skeletons and healed trauma, from combat of some kind.

The beheadings were all perimortem injuries, meaning they were inflicted at the moment of death, or shortly thereafter.

“Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes… confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin, who led the work.

In 2014, a separate international team analyzed the isotopes of the decapitated bodies found in York.

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