York, in the north of England was once an important Roman town. It may also be the home of the world's first complete gladiator graveyard.
York is well known for its Viking remains. But it was also once a regional capital and garrison town of Roman Britain.
Excavations over the last six years could put Roman York on the map. For a major Roman cemetery has been discovered in the suburbs of the city, just over the river from the site of the roman fort. The cemetery is believed to be a possible burial ground for gladiators who lived and died in the city’s arena.
Excavation of an Ancient Roman Cemetery.
During 2004-05, York Archaeological Trust began excavating the gardens of a house at Driffield Terrace, York. The work was part of a routine excavation to prepare the site for development.
The remains the archaeologists found however were anything but routine.
Roman Graves and Skeletons.
The Driffield Terrace site proved to be a cemetery of 80 skeletons, 60 of them mostly complete. Dated between the early 2nd to late 4th century AD, they seemed to cover most of the period of roman occupation of northern Britain.
Roman burials sites in British cities are by no means unusual and the graves were in many respects standard. There were certain features, however, that made the burials stand out.
Firstly, 75 of the skeletons were adult males, an unusual demographic for a roman cemetery. The bodies were around 2cm taller than the average height for the Roman-British period. The skeletons showed that the men were not only tall but well developed individuals, bearing a range of healed and unhealed injuries that could only have been inflicted violently.
Violent Deaths, Respectable Burials.
From the evidence of their bones, the men lived and died violently. But they were buried with respect and continued to be mourned long after they were buried.
Many bodies were accompanied with grave goods. There was also evidence of mourning as many of the graves contained evidence of funeral feasts. One man was buried with the remains of joints of meat from four horses, cows and pigs.
Other graves bear evidence of feasting after the burial. This corresponds with the Roman custom for the friends and family of the dead to return to their graves on important anniversaries to share a meal.
Are they Gladiators?
The demographics of the graveyard, the build of the men and the evidence of violence on the bones has led archaeologists to believe that the graveyard may be the best preserved gladiator cemetery in the world.
Various other theories have been considered. Forty five of the skeletons show signs of decapitation, indicating execution and suggesting the possibility that the men were convicts. But it is unlikely that criminals would have been awarded such respectable burials.
The possibility that the men were soldiers executed in the aftermath of Caracalla’s coup of 211AD was also considered. The graveyard’s long period of use dispels this theory, along with the fact that the men buried there came from all over the empire, rather than from one region which was usual for soldiers of the same unit.
The theory is by no means proven. But the evidence is compelling. The discovery of gladiator burials at Ephesus in 2007, displaying similar injuries to those of the York and the fact that decapitation after defeat was a means of dispatching fallen gladiators makes it more so. Gladiators were known to form guilds to take care of funeral arrangements for fallen comrades, so this would explain the respectable burials awarded to the men.
Picture credit: the Dying Gladiator by Fedor Bronnikov (in the public domain c/o wikimedia)