The secrets of York’s headless Romans

Archaeological scientists are using genome technology to cast more light on York’s mystery ‘gladiators’

Over a decade ago, a set of Roman-age bodies were found by York Archaeological Trust (YAT) at Driffield Terrace in the city. Each one of these skeletons had been decapitated, and nobody knew where they came from.

The mystery has long perplexed archaeologists – but after many years, and with the help of cutting-edge genome technology, archaeological scientists from the University of York have made a breakthrough.


With DNA tests the researchers have discovered the origins of these anonymous dead, which include a Middle Eastern body alongside native Europeans. Professor Matthew Collins, who co-ordinated the analysis, said that the study “confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent.”

He added: “This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”

Several of the men – all under 45 years old – proved to have suffered perimortem decapitation. Their skulls were buried with the body, although not positioned consistently; some were found on the chest, some within the legs, and others at the feet.

The seven were selected for the genome analysis from a group of more than 80 individuals. Variations in isotope values suggested that some of them lived their early lives outside Britain, but most had genomes which were similar to an earlier Iron Age woman from Melton, East Yorkshire.

The poor childhood health of the men suggests they were from disadvantaged households, though their robust skeletons and healed traumas indicate that they were used to wielding weapons.

One of the headless Romans tells a different story, however. Of Middle Eastern origin, he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to the British Isles and meeting his death in York.

skeleton The men were taller than average for Roman Britain and displayed evidence of significant trauma potentially related to close combat. All  have had brown eyes and black or brown hair – except for one, who had distinctive blue eyes and blond hair.

Could these men have been Roman gladiators? Maybe: their demographic profile resembles the population structure in a Roman burial ground believed to be for gladiators at Ephesus. But their lofty statures mean that the evidence could also fit with a military context. The Roman army did have a minimum recruitment height for admission – which presumably included soldiers’ heads.