London gladiators? Scientists unpick gruesome mystery of 39 skulls

Jan 15, 2014

New forensic analysis suggests skulls belonged to Roman gladiators or victims of 'head-hunting'

FORENSIC scientists have finally shed light on the origin of dozens of skulls discovered at London Wall more than 25 years ago. Improved forensic techniques have only recently been applied to the 39 skulls, excavated in 1988 and kept in the Museum of London, with the results published for the first time in the Journal of Archaeological Science this week.

The tests reveal that the almost all the skulls are of adult males aged between 25 and 35, untypical of the bodies usually found in Roman burials, which tend to be very young or old. They appear to have been left for years decomposing in open pits. One was found with a beetle wing casing up its nose and another is thought to have been chewed by dogs. "It is not a pretty picture," says Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, who published the report.

The skulls date back to the second century AD, a time of peace and prosperity for the Roman city, yet most bear scars of wounds inflicted around the time of death. "Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives but as we now know, not everyone," says Redfern. "This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life." On some skulls there is clear evidence of decapitation with a sword. Redfern says possibly they were all were killed in that way.

So who exactly were they?

Fallen gladiators The "most likely" theory is that the men died in a local amphitheatre. Many of the skulls had healed injuries, suggesting that violence was a common feature of their life. One amphitheatre stood on the site of the Guildhall in the City of London, not far from the site where the skulls were found, now occupied by a branch of Waterstones. Redfern's results suggest "probable evidence" for gladiatorial combat in Roman Britain.
Executed criminals "Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator," says Redfern. "It was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you'd give two of them swords and have them kill one another."

Victims of head-hunting An alternative theory is that they are the heads of Scottish barbarians killed by Roman forces and brought to London as trophies, reports The Times. There is evidence of head-taking from across the Roman empire and heads are shown being held up in triumph on tomb stones of cavalry officers in Britain and elsewhere. "It would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process," says Redfern.

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