In what was then a far northern outpost of the Roman Empire, young men in England were fighting to the death for the entertainment of others. Just before, or after, their death the young men’s heads were cut off and the bodies buried on the outskirts of what would become the city of York. Now researchers have been able to use modern genomic techniques to trace where these men originally came from, and have revealed some surprising results.
Following the discovery of 80 skeletons unearthed in what is thought could represent a gladiator's cemetary, genetic comparisons were made between seven of these specimens and an Iron Age woman who was native to Britain. Although this latest study found that most of the bodies were of men who were local, one was slightly different. This individual had a genetic makeup that revealed he actually grew up in the Middle East, in the region of modern-day Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. Not only that, but the researchers then traced the descendants of these men, and found that they most closely matched those living in modern-day Wales.
The site of the graveyard was originally on the edge of the Roman city. It was first discovered over a decade ago, and has divided expert opinion as to exactly who the buried people were. All of the bodies are men under the age of 45, and above average height for the period. Many showed signs of trauma that had healed, and a number had their lives ended with their head being removed. Some argue that rather than gladiators, they may have been soldiers or criminals. Other evidence, however, such as apparent indications that one was bitten by a large animal like a lion or bear, and that many were killed with a hammer blow to the head, is consistent with another gladiator burial site in Turkey.
The new study, published in Nature Communications, also used isotopic analysis to help figure out not only where the men were from, but also what their childhoods were like. By looking at specific isotopes (variants of elements) found in traces of food wedged in the skeletons' teeth, and seeing how they changed over time, the researchers were able to deduce that during their childhoods, many of the men had had experienced hard times and periods of low nutritional intake. This, they say, backs up the idea that they were local men, growing up during harsh periods in Iron Age Britain.
Another of the bodies discovered at the site showing decapitation. All of the bodies were from men under the age of 45. York Archaeological Trust
“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,” explains Christine McDonnell, Head of Curatorial and Archive Services for York Archaeological Trust, who have been excavating the cemetery.
The research just goes to confirm how even at its most northern edge, in what many would have considered the damp, barbaric fringes, the Roman Empire was still cosmopolitan and mixed.
Top image in text: One of the 80 skeletons found in the York burial ground. York Archaeological Trust