An ancient English cemetery filled with headless skeletons holds proof that the victims lost their heads a long way from home, archaeologists say.
In the English city of York near the ancient ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologists have unearthed more than 30 Roman-era skeletons. The skeletons are posed in a gruesome tableau of violent death, their heads hacked off and placed between their knees, at their feet or in other odd places, suggesting desecration and humiliation, even in death. One is found with heavy iron rings around its ankles, an aberration in the Roman world.
Unearthed between 2004 and 2005 in the northern city of York, the 80 skeletons were found in burial grounds used by the Romans throughout the second and third centuries A.D. Almost all the bodies are males, and more than half of them had been decapitated, although many were buried with their detached heads.
Archaeologists say that the “headless Romans” likely came from as far away as Eastern Europe, and previous evidence of combat scars suggests that the men led violent lives. Some of them also came from elsewhere in England or mainland Europe, possibly from France, Germany, the Balkans, or the Mediterranean.
Traces of carbon and nitrogen show that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York’s local population. And two individuals had a carbon signature from a group of food plants-including sorghum, sugarcane, and maize-not known to have been cultivated in England at that time.
The archaeologist noted that “the Romans were not very fond of millet, and often, when they established a new province, other cereals such as wheat would replace millet as the principally grown crop.”
Other recent research suggested the headless Romans were gladiators brought to the distant capital for entertainment. Evidence for this notion includes some skeletons’ unequal arm development—associated with the specialized use of single-handed weapons—and, on one skeleton, tooth marks from a large carnivore, possibly a gladiatorial lion or bear.
Solving the mystery of who the headless Romans were will require further bone analysis and forensic studies, due to be completed in about a year.