Dem bones dem bones...
A heady discovery
By Katy Wright
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.
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?
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
Have Your Say
What do you think happened to these male Romans?
Joseph S Crary