LONDON – Archaeologists said Monday that 80 headless skeletons excavated from a northern English building site appear to be the remains of Roman gladiators, one of whom had bites from a lion, tiger, bear or other large animal.

Experts said new forensic evidence suggests the bones belong to the professional fighters, who were often killed while entertaining spectators.

Most of the skeletons were male and appeared stronger and taller than average Romans’, with signs of arm-muscle stress that suggest weapons training that began in teenage years.

The team investigating the remains said that one of the best clues was carnivore tooth marks found on the hip and shoulder of one of the skeletons.

“The presence of bite marks is one of the strongest pieces of evidence suggesting an arena connection. It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a tiger as he was walking home,” said Michael Wysocki, a lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology who studied the skeletons.

The individuals were probably not soldiers because most of them were decapitated, Wysocki said. Some historians have suggested that gladiators who lost their battles were beheaded. And all of the skeletons were buried with pottery, animals or other offerings, suggesting they were respected people.

The York Archaeological Trust said that the burial ground was not the first of its kind to be uncovered but it was among the best preserved.

The only other comparable gladiator cemetery is in Ephesus, Turkey, said Wysocki, who teaches at the University of Central Lancashire. The remains found there were fragmented and not as complete as those unearthed in York, he said.

Archaeologists stumbled upon the York skeletons in 2003, when they were assessing an area due for housing development. The site was part of a large cemetery on the outskirts of the Roman town.

An excavation project followed, eventually uncovering 80 Roman skeletons. The remains were believed to date from late 1st century to the 4th century.

The findings were announced by Britain’s Channel 4, which was producing a documentary about the discovery.

York — about 200 miles north of London — was one of the largest cities in Roman Britain, and experts believe bands of gladiators touring the Roman Empire occasionally traveled here to put on fighting shows.


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