A Graveyard For Roman Gladiators -- In England? Archaeologists say a dig in northern England may have revealed a burial ground for Roman gladiators. Key clues: the age and heft of the skeletons -- plus the fact that they all were decapitated.
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A Graveyard For Roman Gladiators -- In England?

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A Graveyard For Roman Gladiators -- In England?

A Graveyard For Roman Gladiators -- In England?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Ancient skeletons excavated under the city of York in northern England have archeologists wondering if they've discovered a cemetery full of fallen Roman gladiators. The first of the skeletons was discovered in 2003. Since then, more than 80 have been identified. At least one revealed bite marks from a large carnivore, maybe a lion or tiger. Others had been decapitated. The remains date from the second and third centuries, the period during which the Romans occupied northern England.

And we're joined by the chief executive of the York Archeological Trust, that's the group that conducted the research. His name is John Walker. Mr. Walker, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN WALKER (Chief Executive, York Archeological Trust): Thank you very much for inviting me.

BLOCK: And what was it that made you first start to think that this could be a Roman cemetery full of the remains of gladiators?

Mr. WALKER: We started coming along a lot of decapitated burials. In other words, though we have skeletons and somebody chopped their heads off and thrown them in the grave, they were big men for the time, very muscular and also they had very strong one arm was very strong. So they'd been using one arm an awful lot through their life.

BLOCK: You said you could tell they were very muscular and I can't quite figure out how you would know that. I'm assuming all you're working with is bones, right?

Mr. WALKER: Yeah. The interesting thing is if you've got really big muscles, the paths where they're connected to the bone, the bone will actually grow more at those connection points. So practice will make you bigger.

BLOCK: So you put these pieces together, one arm's stronger, muscular men, heads cut off and you think, could be a scene of gladiators.

Mr. WALKER: Could be. And then you start getting the little twists. Some of them have been hit on the head with a hammer. That has always been suspected as a thing that happens to some gladiators. So they get hit on the head first to render them unconscious. And then, of course, finally we have this lovely bone with this lion or tiger bite. And there are no lions or tigers in England that roamed free.

BLOCK: Now, how could you tell it was a lion or tiger bite in the bone?

Mr. WALKER: Well, I'm not the particular expert, but the osteopathologist, who's done an awful lot of study of injuries to human bones. And it's CSI moment, isnt it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALKER: The only thing that will fit the mark on the bone is lion or tiger.

BLOCK: Well, what are the alternate theories of what this could be? If it weren't gladiators, what's maybe a less sexy theory of what these things could be?

Mr. WALKER: Okay, a less sexy, more humdrum theory is that they are actually prisoners.

BLOCK: Ah.

Mr. WALKER: Believe it or not, it was a privilege if you were a Roman citizen to be decapitated. So, could these guys all actually be military guys that had been executed for desertion or whatever? Of course, where it falls apart is on this tiger bite. Later on we're going to conduct a real experiment. On the 14th of June, we're going to open up a website with basic evidence on it and invite the public to vote.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I see. Everybody gets a say in this.

Mr. WALKER: Everybody gets a say, which is think is a good way of introducing people to the problems of archeology.

BLOCK: John Walker, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. WALKER: It's been pleasure.

BLOCK: John Walker is the chief executive of the York Archeological Trust. We've been talking about a site in northern England that may be a Roman gladiator cemetery.

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