Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets

Almost 20 years ago, York Archaeological Trust were excavating part of a Roman cemetery when they uncovered dozens of decapitated skeletons. Were these the remains of gladiators? An exhibition at Cirencester’s Corinium Museum sets out the evidence, as Carly Hilts reports.

In 2004 and 2005, York Archaeological Trust excavated part of a Roman cemetery that was preserved beneath the gardens of houses on Driffield Terrace, just outside York’s city walls. Some 83 inhumations and 14 cremation burials were uncovered, and it quickly became apparent that many of the inhumed individuals had been decapitated. This is not, in itself, a particularly unusual feature of Roman burials, but the sheer number of beheadings (46, over half the excavated inhumations) was rather less typical. As analysis of the remains progressed, it also became clear that the majority of these individuals were young men, well-built and taller than average for the time, and many of them bore signs of traumatic injuries inflicted by sharp blades. What was going on?

One of the decapitated skeletons from Driffield Terrace, York, currently on display at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. IMAGE: York Archaeological Trust

Various interpretations have been put forward for this group of skeletons. Could they have been executed criminals? This did not fit with the care and respect with which they had been buried, in an apparently prestigious cemetery where other individuals had been laid to rest with grave goods hinting at high social status. What about soldiers? In a Roman garrison town like York a military presence would be expected, and it would help to explain the violent ends that some of these men had met – but the proportion of decapitated skeletons would still be unusual. When an apparent bite-mark from a large carnivore was identified on the pelvis of one of the men, though, another theory was put forward: could these have been gladiators? An exhibition currently running at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester sets out the evidence.

Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets (a touring exhibition from the Jorvik Group) features six of the Driffield Terrace skeletons, each laid out as they were found in their graves, and includes particularly notable individuals, among them the man with the ‘animal bite’ described above, and another who was found with iron rings or shackles around his ankles. Each case is accompanied by text guiding viewers through osteological evidence for the individuals’ experiences and health in life; their age and build; and clues to how they died; as well as describing their burial context and sharing details of the isotope analysis that has revealed the diverse origins of some of the cemetery population (see CA 312).

This reconstruction shows how Cirencester’s amphitheatre – one of the largest examples known from Roman Britain – might have looked. Its earthworks still survive today. Image: Corinium Museum, CDC

Further insights come from computer screens that show MRI scans of specific bones (undertaken at the York Hospital) and a facial reconstruction of one of the men (by the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University), as well as a 20-minute looped video describing the original excavation, exploring the cemetery in more detail, talking through some of the individual skeletons, and explaining how Teeside University is using 3D modelling to investigate the ‘animal bite’. There are wall panels, too, exploring who gladiators were, and when and why they fought; replica helmets illustrating the different kinds of fighters; and a case of loaned objects illustrating burial rituals, everyday experiences, and military life during the Roman period.

Local details

This wealth of information, even within a relatively small display area, is absorbing – but where the Corinium version of this exhibition comes into its own is in the complementary material drawn from the museum’s own collections. Like York, Roman Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) was an important settlement: at its peak, the second largest in Britain, with public facilities to match. But while York, despite its potential gladiator burials, has not yet yielded evidence of an amphitheatre, the earth banks of Cirencester’s still stand today, about a 15-minute walk from the museum. It is one of the largest examples yet found in Britain – but, to-date, no direct evidence has been found of gladiator fights being held in the city. Residents were clearly aware of, and interested in, such entertainments, however – as an attractive display of sherds of Samian ware, found in the area and decorated with images of gladiators fighting each other and wild animals, attests.

Image: Corinium Museum, CDC

The amphitheatre in Cirencester has not received the archaeological attention of sites like Chester (CA 224 and 304) or, more recently, Richborough (CA 382), but it was excavated in the 1960s – and two more cases within the exhibition reflect this investigation, housing a selection of artefacts, as well as site notebooks and characterful black-and-white photographs taken during the works.

Outside the main exhibition space, the gladiator theme has been extended into the Corinium’s permanent Roman galleries, encouraging visitors to explore the wider collections of the museum (which include a stunning array of colourful mosaics, as well as the bronze and enamel cockerel figurine, excavated from a child’s grave in the Tetbury Road Roman cemetery, which featured on the cover of CA 281). There are various family-friendly activities on offer, from a children’s trail to dressing-up opportunities and a small display of vintage Johillco toys depicting Roman soldiers and gladiators. The museum is also hosting gladiator re-enactments in February and April (see the ‘Further information’ box below).

For those who have not been to the Corinium recently, the museum’s ground floor is also now home to ‘Stone Age to Corinium’ galleries, which opened in 2020 and showcase more than 600 artefacts spanning the Palaeolithic period to the onset of Roman influence in the area. Its atmospherically lit and beautifully laid out displays include a Bronze Age sword mould, the complete skeleton of ‘Rusty’ the Iron Age dog, and a reconstruction of part of Hazleton North long cairn, where genetic analysis recently reconstructed five generations of a Neolithic family tree (CA 384). Don’t miss these during your explorations of the Roman world – and watch this space for a fuller feature focusing on the Driffield Terrace skeletons, gladiators in Roman Britain, and Cirencester’s amphitheatre in next month’s issue.

Further information
Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets is a touring exhibition brought to you by The JORVIK Group: https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk/about/touring-exhibitions/. 

It runs at Corinium Museum until 23 April. Gladiator re-enactments will be held at the museum on 21-23 February and 12-14 April.

The exhibition is sponsored by K D Winstone Charitable Trust, the Friends of Corinium Museum, and St James’s Place Wealth Management.

For more details of the exhibition and activities, see www.coriniummuseum.org/discover/gladiators.

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