In 1988, laborers working in a pit in the heart of London made a grisly discovery—39 partial or complete human skulls and the shaft of one adult right femur. Archaeologists excavated the ancient remains the following year and stored them in the nearby Museum of London. Now, 25 years later, new forensic research has revealed that the severed heads may offer proof of headhunting by the Roman army as well as the first evidence of gladiatorial combat in the Roman city of Londinium.
The findings of the state-of-the-art forensic testing done by Rebecca Redfern, a research osteologist with the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, and her colleague Heather Bonney from the Natural History Museum were published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science. While ancient human remains have been unearthed for centuries in the section of London along the course of Walbrook River, which now flows beneath the city, the re-examination of the skulls discovered in 1988 revealed that they were unlike any found in the city ever before and probably belonged to executed criminals, conquered enemies and fallen gladiators.
The forensic research found that the remains had not been buried in one of the cemeteries outside the boundaries of Londinium and subsequently washed down the Walbrook River, but rather displayed in open waterlogged pits within an industrial area of the Roman city. Unlike in most Roman burial sites that include the very young and old alike, the remains found in the pit were determined by researchers to be from men between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. The bioarchaeological analysis found that one adult male jawbone was even gouged with canine teeth marks, indicating that soft tissue was present on the decomposing head when the dog got hold of it in the pit. Also unusual is that most of the skulls show evidence of multiple healed injuries, lethal blunt- and sharp-force trauma and even decapitation, suggesting that “violence was a common feature of their lives” according to the journal article.
Redfern and Bonney, however, dated the remains to between 120 and 160 A.D., a time of peace and prosperity in Londinium when it was a powerful imperial outpost of the Roman Empire. There is no evidence of social unrest, warfare or organized violence during that time period, so how did these ancient Londoners come to such a brutal end?
The most likely theory according to the authors is that at least some of the men were killed in the nearby amphitheatre, either as executed criminals or defeated gladiators. The age of the victims, mostly in their 20s, fits the typical demographical profile of gladiators, and the blunt-forced trauma in the frontal and parietal bones along with the sharp-force weapon injuries found in the victims are similar to those discovered in a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus, Turkey. Decapitation was also a method of dispatching of mortally injured gladiators, which is consistent with the remains found in the pit. If the theory is correct, it will be the first solid evidence of gladiatorial combat in London.
Another possible explanation for the trauma seen in the remains put forth by the researchers is that some of the skulls were decapitated heads brought back from the fields of battle as trophies by Roman armies. Displaying body parts for ritual purposes is believed to have taken place in Britannia, and the Roman military engaged in the practice of headhunting, which is depicted on Roman architecture such as Trajan’s Column in Rome. During the first and second centuries A.D., military personnel serving in Londinium would have been stationed at the northern frontiers and engaged in sporadic warfare with enemy forces behind the Antonine Wall in Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, so the heads that might have been brought back from the battlefields to London as trophies of war could have been those of Scottish barbarians.
The researchers don’t rule out that the victims in the pit could have been a mix of gladiators, enemy fighters and executed convicts. (While some Roman criminals faced death before the public in the amphitheatre by hanging, crucifixion or burning, the elites had the privilege of a more honorable execution—decapitation.) Ancient remains continue to be exhumed in London—the latest find occurred in October 2013 during construction of a utility tunnel near Liverpool Street Station. With this new research upending the centuries-old view that the ancient remains were simply washed out of Roman cemeteries, London’s Guardian newspaper reports that it “may force archaeologists to have another look at more recent skull finds.”