A group of skeletons discovered in York, thought to be decapitated gladiators, have had their genomes sequenced by Trinity College Dublin scientists.
When 80 skeletons were discovered in York a decade ago, several things stood out to archaeologists, with all clues pointing to gladiatorial remains.
Dated back to Roman times, they were too big to be average Joes (they were nearly all men), and were all of a similar age. They also had had their heads cut off “perimortem”, with some stacked on the skeletons’ chests, others between the legs and even some at the feet.
Trauma and decapitations
They had all suffered significant bone trauma and the decapitations were done with very sharp blades, perhaps in combat, leading many to surmise they were fighters.
Archaeologists thought these must be something other than standard remains, with options like soldiers or gladiators standing out.
The Roman-age skeletons from Driffield Terrace laid out in York’s Guildhall, via York Archaeological Trust.
But, as with all archaeology, a certain amount of supposition and guess work was required to fill in the gaps. Ten years down the line they wanted more, and when Professor Daniel Bradley from Trinity College got wind of the issue, he picked up the phone.
“A few years ago we found the best bone to preserve human DNA was in the ear,” he tells me, “so I called a colleague of mine in York to see if he wanted us to look into these remains. I told him that we could get whole genomes, that this is cutting edge.”
He stops mid-sentence, noting the potential inappropriateness of using such a phrase about decapitation remains, but I assure him their families probably don’t mind.
The skull of one of the Roman-age skeletons discovered at Driffield Terrace in York, via York Archaeological Trust
Sequencing genomes, when possible, offers incredible, factual information on the remains of people, where otherwise guesswork would be involved.
The first thing I asked Prof Bradley, though, is how archaeologists know that these supposed gladiators were decapitated before dying.
Slap on the wrists
“Oh, we don’t,” he corrects me, “‘perimortem’ doesn’t mean during death, it’s more a grey area whereby archaeologists simply can’t know.”
Slap on the wrists for Gordon so, before Prof Bradley notes that, of the 80 skeletons, the seven with the best remaining remains were tested.
One of the skeletons excavated by York Archaeological Trust at Driffield Terrace, via York Archaeological Trust.
“It’s the first time this has been done in the UK,” he says. “Well, in the same issue of Nature Communications, another group are doing something similar, so joint first.”
Despite variation in isotope levels that suggested some of the 80 individuals lived their early lives outside Britain, most of those sampled had genomes similar to an earlier Iron Age woman from East Yorkshire.
The poor childhood health of these men – established through other scientific means – suggests that they were locals who endured childhood stress, but their robust skeletons and healed trauma suggest that they were used to wielding weapons.
The nearest modern descendants of the Roman British men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales. A man from a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the village of Norton, Teesside in Durham has genes more closely aligned to modern East Anglia and Dutch individuals and highlights the impact of later migrations upon the genetic makeup of the earlier Roman British inhabitants.
However, one of the decapitated Romans had a very different story, of Middle Eastern origin, he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to this region and meeting his death in York.
One of the Roman-age skulls found at Driffield Terrace in York, via York Osteoarchaeology Ltd
Something similar was achieved in Africa recently, too, using the same ear-bone technique but, while this is a (joint) first for the UK, Prof Bradley notes that Irish research is well ahead.
“It’s only in the last two years or so that we’ve really started to look at genomics in pre-history,” he says. “Up until then we were looking at modern genetics, how events in the past would have given us modern genetic patterns.”
The ripple effect
That, he explains, is like throwing a stone into a lake and, from the ripples it creates, tracing it backwards. It’s easy with one stone but gets complicated as more are thrown in. “Layers overlap,” he says.
“The idea is to time travel, if you like, directly looking at genomes. Every time we’ve done that we’ve found out something new.
“Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York,” says Prof Bradley, “our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicates six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East. It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent.”
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