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Dublin geneticists shed light on mystery of Roman Empire gladiators in York

One of the remains of some 80 gladiators in York. Picture via York Archaeological Trust
One of the remains of some 80 gladiators in York. Picture via York Archaeological Trust

GENETICISTS from Trinity College Dublin have cast some light on the mystery of the skeletal remains of Ancient Roman gladiators in York.

They were among a team of researchers from Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands using hi-tech archaeological methods to unearth the hidden secrets of the skeletal remains of more than 80 men in York.

And one of the most interesting finds came from the analysis of the remains of a beheaded gladiator from the Middle East – found among the early settlers in Britain.

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Professor Dan Bradley, from the TCD Smurfit Institute of Genetics, led the Irish team on their genome analysis of the remains at Driffield Terrace in York City, which uncovered much of the previously unknown history.

While they are understood to have suffered childhood deprivation, the skeletal remains also revealed injuries consistent with battle trauma, leading the research team to discover that they are gladiator remains.

Each of the bodies examined had been decapitated when close to death – possibly a rite of passage for a former gladiator.

“Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicate six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East,” Prof Bradley said.

“It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent.”

The Roman Empire, at its peak, covered most of Europe – stretching across the continent to Britain, as well as taking in parts of Northern Africa.

The empire fell in the year 476 – placing these skeletons at around 1,500 years old.

But one of these gladiators in particular that peaked interest in the team – when detailed analysis revealed he originated in modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria, before meeting his death in York.

His were the only remains not to have been native to Europe on the project – a new discovery in Britain’s Ancient Roman past.

The remaining six examined by the TCD team’s genome analysis indicated that they were more closely related to the modern day Welsh than the Saxons.

The research was led by the York Archaeological Trust and carried out by teams from both TCD and the University of York, as well as the universities of Durham, Reading and Sheffield, University College London and the University Medical Centre in Utrecht.

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James Mulhall
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James Mulhall is a reporter with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @JamzMulhall

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