The mystery of England's 2000-year-old headless gladiators

An ancient Roman cemetery in northern England is home to 80 corpses of strong, muscular men who quite literally lost their heads. These decapitated skeletons leave behind a 2000-year-old archaeological mystery that spans all of Europe.

The skeletons were first unearthed during archaeological digs in York in 2004 and 2005. The bodies date back to around 200 CE, when the area was a Roman military base and settlement known as Eboracum. It was immediately apparent that the skeletons were rather different from those of the average dead ancient person. The eighty corpses were all once heavily muscled men between the ages of 18 and 45, and forty-six of them had had their head cut off.

And yet, despite the brutality of their death, they seemed to be buried with relative honor. The heads were all carefully placed with the bodies so that their skeletons would in some sense still be complete. The cemetery itself is also thought to be one of the most prestigious in Roman England, as Eboracum itself was one of the key cities of the imperial occupation. Eventually, the town became the empire's northernmost provincial capital, and it featured many of the same attractions and luxuries found in Rome itself, albeit on a smaller scale.

One of those attractions was gladiatorial fights, and archaeologists theorize the skeletons are combatants who were slain after their fighting career had ended. That's currently considered the most likely theory, although it isn't the only possibility. Chief archaeologist Kurt Hunter-Mann says it's possible that the decapitations had a religious significance we don't quite understand, perhaps as a result of a unique cultural fusion.

And Eboracum certainly had no shortage of different cultural influences, at least from the gladiators themselves. Analysis of the skeletons has revealed they came from some very far-flung corners of Europe. It seems a bit like adding insult to (fatal) injury, really - they didn't even get the minor dignity of being decapitated in their own backyard.

So how can archaeologists tell where a person came from? Our teeth and bones absorb various isotopes as we grow. For instance, our teeth are full of oxygen and strontium isotopes that become fixed as our permanent teeth are finished forming. Based on the ratios and composition of the isotopes, it's possible to figure out exactly where a person lived and what he or she was eating during the person's youth.

And the headless gladiators looked very different from their fellows in ancient York. Of 18 corpses that were recently tested for isotopes in the teeth, only five were natives, while the rest came from all over: France, Germany, the Balkans, and the southern Mediterranean around Italy or Spain.

Another analysis of 68 of the corpses found that five had diets utterly unlike what you would expect around York. In fact, their nutritional values, which seemed to favor the protein-heavy foodstuff millet, were extremely rare throughout the Roman Empire. At least one of them must have come from far away in Eastern Europe, or at least somewhere that had access to water from high mountains.

Hunter-Mann says these results will help them better understand what is going on with these headless corpses. Further studies might put them on the trail of specific regional belief systems that might have influenced the decapitations, or it could help confirm the gladiator theory. Either way, it's a good reminder why it pays to eat local - you'll be doing future archaeologists a huge favor, particularly if you're planning on getting decapitated.

[Journal of Archaeological Science; the image up top isn't strictly related, but it's easily the most awesome thing you get when you search for "gladiators."]