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24 September 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Archaeology > A heady discovery

Skeletons on tables

Dem bones dem bones...

A heady discovery

It's not unusual to find Roman burial grounds alongside main routes into a city, since Roman law forbade burial inside city walls. But when an excavation took place on York's Driffield Terrace, something unsual turned up...

In August 2004, the York Archaeological Trust excavated the site of a 3rd century Roman burial ground at Driffield Terrace in York. What began as a routine dig, quickly led to a discovery that would perplex archaeologists the world over.

Instead of the usual mix of sex and age, the skeletons of 49 prime-of-life adult males were discovered. By the standards of the day, they were tall and powerfully built, their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion. Isotope analysis of their tooth enamel has revealed that they came from every corner of the Roman Empire – Britain, the Mediterranean, the Alps and as far away as North Africa.

"The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant. Death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence."

More than half had been decapitated. Although headless burials are not unknown, to see so many in the same place is unprecedented anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most intriguing is what had been done with the skulls of the skeletons - some were placed between the knees or underneath the arm of victims. Bizarrely, in one case, the heads of two of the men had been switched but they were in the same grave, which is also strange.

Archaeologists and historians have proffered a number of competing theories to explain the disturbing discovery:

Gladiators killed in an arena archaeologists have yet to discover?

Men with similar asymmetry, muscular arms and of similar ages have been excavated at a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey. Deaths in gladiatorial duals appear to have risen in Roman Britain though the 3rd and 4th centuries. Evidence from tombstones suggest an average age of 27 for gladiators but it may have been lower as tombstones may not have been afforded to those who “failed” early. 

Members of an elite body guard of military men?

Whilst they don’t exhibit the sort of healed trauma you would expect to find on men who were in battle they do exhibit the sort of injures associated with rough and tumble/scrapping – lost teeth, skull depressions, fractures of ribs, vertebrae, hands and feet. They are taller than the average Romano British male, are strong and are in relatively good health.

Victims of raiding parties?

Romans killed at various times by non Romanised marauders from the northern fringe of the northern empire brought back for burial to York?

The remains of a decapitated Roman

Political victims of a deranged dictator?

Backing the wrong side politically could be injurous to your wealth and health. BBC Timewatch “The Mystery of Headless Romans” recently explored the theory that these individuals are victims of the Emperor Caracalla who died, stabbed to death by his own body guard April 8, AD217.


The use of the sword as a form of execution was only afforded to Roman citizens, Others would have been crucified, bludgeoned to death, strangled or eaten by animals. However, Emperor Caracalla made all free men citizens so this distinction would have become blurred.  Would criminals have been buried in such a prestigious position, though? The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant. Death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence where it can be seen.

Is it a religious rite?

The head is thought to be the seat of the soul. If the head is separated from the body the soul escapes and the dead will not be able to walk. Decapitations are not unknown in Roman Britain but it seems that both males and females were included in this burial rite plus the heads are removed post mortem. All the Driffield Terrace individuals were male and killed by decapitation.

This is not just one event...

The use of the cemetery at  Driffield Terrace continues for some time. The fact that decapitated skeletons are to be found in different phases of a cemetery and date from the early 3rd to 4th century indicates that this was not a single mass event, but occurred over a number of years.

last updated: 31/03/2008 at 14:26
created: 26/04/2006

Have Your Say

What do you think happened to these male Romans?

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Could they have been converts to Christianity who were beheaded for treason (since it was treasonous to subscribe to any other religion than the "Emperor cult"? Since they were not all killed at the same time, perhaps their Christian faith was discovered at different times, and the men were then executed.

Joseph S Crary
To note that after Lucius Septimius Severus had secured himself aganist Pescennius Niger (an imperial claimant) and his Parthian supporters in AD 194, he turned his attention west to Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus (Severus' imperial heir of the moment). First, he declared his son Lucius Septimius Bassianus (age 7/8 yrs and nicknmaed Caracalla-Gaulic greatcoat) to be heir in November or December of AD 195. This may have been an attempt to draw Albinus out of Britain (he had been governor there from about AD 191 on). The Caracalla appointment was in effect a challenge which Albinus immediately excepted. In early AD 196 he had himself decleared emperor by his troops, crossed the channel into Gaul with 40,000 troops, and collected more men as he moved south and east towards Rome.Severus, returned to Rome late in December AD 196, set out in January AD 197 for his power base on the Danube. Cutting to the chase, Clodius Albinus fled his defeat at Lugdunum (Lyons) early in AD 197, but finding escape impossible appeared to have killed himself. What followed goes to the every point of my posting. Severus had Albinus' corpse was stripped bare and laid out where he trampled-disfiguring it with his horse. Thereafter Albinus' head was severed and sent to Rome as a warning to Albinus supporters of what was to come. On the spot, Albinus' wife and sons were initially pardoned by Severus, whereapon he immediately desided they all must die as well.It's not directualy stated, but immplied that they were beheaded as well. Thereafter the corpses of Albinus along with those of his wife and sons were flung into the Rhine. On returning to Rome Severus put 29 senators to death as well as numerous equestrians, thereapon gaining the nickname 'Punic Sulla'. None of his later victoms were beheaded.Throughout his life Severus never seemed to let his sons out of his sight. Again, its not stated but being so young and imperial heir, Severus would have kept both Caracalla and his brother Geta very close during the Albinus campaign in Gaul. If he didn't actually see the killings its likely he knew what happened to the Albinians and may well have known the demoralizing affect beheading had on traditional Celt populations (ie soul taking and all that).Thus, after he had his brother Geta killed in AD 212, Caracalla likely rounded up his brothers supports in Britian and had them sent to York. After several years of confinement Caralla had them killed and beheaded.

Graham Smith
Perhaps they are descendants of the Germanic Alemanni tribes who arrived with Constantius Chlorus. Some of which helped the picts with their invasion of northern britain.

David Waterhouse
The skeletons are those of Gaius Julius Marcus roman governor of Britain and his bodyguards he favoured Caracalla's brother Geta, after Caracalla murdered his brother,He had them murdered, as he did anyone who did anything he did not agree with

Perhaps they were Roman military who committed treason, and were punished by death. Or slaves, skilled masons or fortifiers who tried to revolt, run away. Or maybe there was a religious reason - they might have refused conversion to some religion or other.

Tommy Harking
I've been down that area of town, it's probs just the local townies that's done it. They're always up to no good.

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