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Etching showing Roman gladiators vanquishing their opponents.

Roman gladiators fight to the death in an amphitheater in this etching.

Photograph by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published January 15, 2014

Beheadings and brutality aplenty marked the deaths of the Roman Empire's gladiators, criminals, and war victims, suggest forensic archaeologists looking at skulls from ancient London.

The thriving capital of a Roman province by A.D. 100, Londinium (now London) held Roman legions, restive Britons, and an amphitheater for gladiatorial games. Along one of London's "lost rivers," the Walbrook stream, the city also held tanneries and burial pits. (See video: "When Rome Ruled: Gladiator Training Camp.")

In a new Journal of Archaeological Science report by Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London and Heather Bonney of London's Natural History Museum, analysis of 39 skulls uncovered from those pits—many bearing marks of decapitation and other brutality—tell a gory tale of ancient times.

"It is possible that these represent the remains of executed criminals, gladiators, and trophy heads," Redfern says. "We are confident that injuries we observed on these human remains could not have been caused by accident."

Gladiators were famously one of the chief entertainments of the Roman era, fighting in various costumes and with a range of weaponry in amphitheaters across the empire. While Roman art often depicted gladiators brawling and legionaries brandishing the heads of defeated enemies before emperors, the skulls provide direct evidence of ferocious lives and deaths in the ancient empire. (See video: "Gladiators Back from the Dead: Gladiator Graveyards.")

Skull Trauma

In 1989, archaeologists uncovered the skulls from a series of pits connected to tanneries and from a well once located along the Walbrook stream. Most dated to A.D. 120 to 160, when ancient Londinium was at its height, and belonged to men between the ages of 26 and 35.

Skulls from all of the pits bore marks of trauma from blunt force or edged weapons, the new microscopic wear analysis shows, indicating smashed or slashed faces, fractures of the eye and cheekbones, and blows to the back of the head.

Photo of an adult male jaw bone.
Photograph by University of London
The jawbone of an adult male was found in an open pit with marks of dog gnawing.

Indicating they had led rough lives, eight of the men's skulls bore signs of previous healed fractures. Most of the skulls showed signs of some wounds healed prior to the owner's traumatic death.

In death, just over half of the men's skulls bore freshly acquired marks of multiple wounds to the head, including broken or slashed jaws. One of the men's skulls, buried alone, directly betrays cut marks indicating he was beheaded. The lonely burials of the rest of the skulls (only one thigh bone was found along with them) in the pits point to decapitation as well, the study suggests, before or after death.

Londinium Gladiators?

The study authors suggest that these signs of hard lives might mean the skulls belonged to gladiators defeated in Londinium's amphitheater, located at the time close to the Walbrook.

In the study, they write, "Evidence for decapitation could reflect the dispatching of mortally injured combatants in the amphitheatre." Although Roman gladiators often received formal funerals, they add, "the bodies of many amphitheatre combatants were not claimed and would have been excluded from formal burial grounds and funerary practices."

However, Harvard's Kathleen Coleman, an expert on Roman gladiator customs, is dubious. "The mutilated human remains found in [the] Walbrook stream sound as though they could have been victims of thuggery, gang warfare, or urban rioting," she says.

Redfern argues that riots or gangs can't explain the collection of skulls. "There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare, or other acts of organised violence in London during the period that these human remains date from," she said by email. Therefore, she sees "two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman headhunting—a tantalising prospect."

Trajan's Column in Rome, for example, and other Roman public works depict Roman soldiers displaying the heads of "barbarian" enemies defeated in battle. The skulls found in London lack the damage associated with being mounted on posts after decapitation, one display practice of the time, but that doesn't mean they weren't otherwise exhibited after execution or death in Londinium's amphitheater, say the study authors.

However, without tombstones such as those found at a known gladiators' cemetery in the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, "there is no evidence to link these skeletons with gladiators," concludes Coleman.

Roman Justice

That leaves other possibilities raised by the study authors, namely that the skulls either belonged to executed criminals or were war trophies collected by Roman legionaries.

"The Roman military were strongly associated with headhunting practices," says the study. Stationed at Hadrian's Wall for frontier skirmishes, they would have had plenty of opportunities. The evidence of beheading, some of the puncture wounds, and the sheer number of noggins all suggest that "some of these remains derive from trophy heads."

Alternately, criminals might have been killed and then left for display after death. One skull found at the site appears to have been gnawed on by a dog before being tossed in a pit.

"The view of bloodthirsty Romans has wide currency, but this is the first time that we have evidence of these types of violent acts in London," Redfern concludes. For now, she says the evidence is open enough to allow for the skulls coming from any or all of the possibilities—gladiators, criminals, or war trophies—raised by the study.

In the future, the archaeologists hope to pursue isotope analyses aimed at uncovering where the skulls' owners originated, which may reveal whether they were executed locals or merely unfortunates from faraway places, perhaps gladiators, who met a grisly end in Old Londinium.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

18 comments
Jeremy Lewer
Jeremy Lewer

I was in the UK in 1994 and went to Chester to visit the Roman digs. It was absolutely fasinating. They also used to build on the foundations of the buildings that were there before, so you see different types of foundations through the layers. In York outside York Cathederal there is a roman collum dating back to 71 AD.

Liz Jowett
Liz Jowett

Genetically, the ability to commit brutal acts like this lies within everyone (yes, even you). Beneath our 21st century facade, we have the exact same minds as these Romans- our brains are no different. 

For if you took a baby from 3rd century London and raised them in 21st century London, they would grow up believing that brutal acts like what happened to these decapitated Romans is horrific. Conversely, if you took a 21st century baby and raised them in 3rd century London, they would grow up viewing these brutal acts as nothing special- a norm for the times. 

The fact of the matter is that we are hugely adaptable and that morality is largely a cultural thing (it is not as ingrained as we would sometimes like to believe it is).

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

Although that type of brutality and barbarism isn't done these days, the human race is still quite violent.  I agree, many humans are not like that, but what about the needless bloodshed from the radicals out there?  The terrorist bombings and intentional killings of innocent people due to misguided beliefs?  The Boston Marathon bombing was so, so needless.  Innocent people were mutilated and killed.  For what, really?  NOTHING good.   Yes, I do agree that we inherited and cultivated a lot of great culture and learning from the Romans.  That we didn't continue with the gladiator type of brutality is a good thing.  Unfortunately there is a new type of carnage out there.   Sad. 

Terry Brettner
Terry Brettner

It appears that we have risen above Roman barbarity.  We inherited much of our culture from ancient Rome, let's be thankful that our more recent ancestors had the humility to reject brutality.

Andrea Ally
Andrea Ally

Well, if it's one certainty the study and article here has confirmed it's how quickly we  can start an "us or them" issue and finger pointing in the comments section. Animosity is apparently timeless and universal.

Larry Downs
Larry Downs

I wouldn't get overly excited. It has been well over a century since we white men introduced the North American Indians to the practice of scalping and it hasn't( as of yet) become a national sport. The Romans were a brutal lot, for sure. They also gave us a good deal of culture. Before you begin to congratulate yourself for our successful evolution to the "gentle beings" we are now... learn some of the common practices of our military and intelligence agencies...

Dipak Kundu
Dipak Kundu

This type of brutality over comes the ancient Roman Civilization !

John C.
John C.

Christianity became popular in large part because so many people were so appalled by the violence and vulgarity of Roman society.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

Lest we forget, humans are the top predator on this planet. (Just an aside, I think a small group was exiled here from another more peaceful planet in a faraway galaxy).  


With the billions on this planet and life sustaining resources on the wane, I suspect even the throwback "peaceful" humans will in some distant future have their hands full with the bully gladiators. I think hunting for humans will become a game (there are scifi stories about that) and more lethal games will become popular. 


Speaking of bullying: don't you think boxing, football, hunting for "fun", school power-over activities by stronger children over weaker, rape, disallowing women contraception, etc. are all acts of predators?  I do. 

Tavish Sharma
Tavish Sharma

any drama or serial based on it ??

please send me link

Chanda Russell
Chanda Russell

I would love to see a follow up on what the isotope analysis discovers.

annie branwen
annie branwen

Glad the Roman's at this time are all gone, just like Hitler, no fellow feeling .

Bobby B.
Bobby B.

@Larry DownsYeah and learn some of the common practices American Indian tribes did to each other prior to the white man. They weren't 'gentle beings' either.

Liz Jowett
Liz Jowett

@John C.I wouldn't say that necessarily. Christianity was the "slaves religion" in Rome and up until the point a Christian emperor came along, Christianity was ridiculed by the Romans and viewed as an odd religion (its true that the earliest known depiction of Jesus is a crude & offensive Roman graffiti drawing of a donkey-headed Jesus on the cross). 


The reason why Christianity appealed to slaves is because of its beliefs on the afterlife- slaves had nothing & suffered a lot, but Christianity promised them paradise as much as it did to those who were rich and happy. 

The fact of the matter is that the "violence and vulgarity" of Roman society did not end once Christianity became a mainstream religion, and a great deal of people converted to it for social/political reasons (rather than genuine faith/belief in it), hence all the half pagan half Christian burials etc (in terms of afterlife, people were basically hedging their bets- on the outside people were Christian, but within their hearts and minds they still believed in pagan practices & gods etc).  

And when the soldiers withdraw from Britain during the fall of the empire, it took virtually no time at all for this country to revert back to a strongly pagan state (during many points in the Dark Ages there were greater numbers of Pagans than Christians, and that at various points Christianity almost lost the battle of the religions. In the end it was kings converting to Christianity for international trade & political reasons that assured the future of the religion in this country). 


Say what you will of pagan religion, but during the pagan eras the Romans were remarkably tolerant of different religions. On the other hand, the same can not be said for Christianity (which was directly responsible for one of Europe's darkest and most barbaric episodes in history- the persecution of the witches (its thought that around 40,000 people were killed in Europe for being accused of witchcraft or being witches)).

Louie Lim
Louie Lim

@annie branwen their civilization/empire may have broken down, but i believe they left behind descendants which populate the European continent to this day.

Michael Fuchs
Michael Fuchs

@annie branwenHave you forgotten the Video of Muslims decapitating Mr. Pearl in Iraq.  How about the soldiers they decapitated or the security men they hung on the bridge after the Iraq war.  Wish I could remember more of the details cause I am sure it will come to America during this Arab Spring as Barack Hussein Obama calls it!

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