Skulls suggest Romans in London enjoyed human blood sports

January 20, 2014
Skulls suggest Romans in London enjoyed human blood sports
An adult male skull displaying a healed fracture of the cheekbone sustained during life. Credit:  Heather Bonney/Museum of London

A joint research project between the Museum of London and the Natural History Museum has re-evaluated human remains discovered under the London Wall in 1988.

The majority of the remains were recovered from an industrial site in the Walbrook Valley and have been curated by the Museum of London.

Because the skull is the first body part to disarticulate, it was first thought that these were skull bones that had separated from the rest of the bodies over time and been washed out from graves. Similar crania are often found in the River Thames.

Evidence of violent injury

Museum forensic anthropologist Dr Heather Bonney, who analysed the skulls, however, found that many of the individuals had sustained blunt force trauma in the facial area and on the side of their heads around the time of their death.

Army trophies

This would suggest several theories, which include that these remains could be the heads of people executed in the amphitheatre near the burial site, or the heads of enemies kept as trophies by the Roman army from the frontiers of Britain, stationed in Roman London.

Roman amphitheatres were typically used for gladiator combat and judicial execution.

Human games

Only a few of the showed signs of the type of decapitation you would expect in judicial execution.

The human remains were deposited between AD 120-AD160, which was a time of prosperity and peace in the province, rather than a period of war when human remains exhibiting would have been more typical.

Violent Londinium

Dr Rebecca Redfern from the Museum of London, said, 'There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare or other acts of organised violence, during the period that these human remains date from. The view of bloodthirsty Romans has wide currency, but this is the first time that we have evidence of these types of violence in London.'

Dr Bonney said that similar burial sites for the victims of gladiatorial combat have been found in Europe, but not previously identified in Britain. 'We know gladiator contests went on in London but not the extent of such contests,' she said.

'The prevalence of trauma and young adult males from this site indicate that they probably met a violent end, and their heads were then separated and deposited. Signs of violent injuries sustained during life also provide a fascinating insight into violent activities in Roman London.'

The research team said that the next step was to investigate where the people buried in the site came from.

Explore further: 'Roman gladiator graveyard' unearthed in Britain

Related Stories

'Roman gladiator graveyard' unearthed in Britain

June 8, 2010

Archaeologists in Britain believe they have found the world's best-preserved gladiator cemetery, unearthing skeletons with the kind of violent injuries usually sustained in a Roman amphitheatre.

Remains of Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre found

June 6, 2012

(AP) — Archaeologists in London have discovered the remains of an Elizabethan theater where some of William Shakespeare's plays were first performed — a venue immortalized as "this wooden O" in the prologue to "Henry ...

London rail workers find likely plague burial pit (Update)

March 15, 2013

Workers digging a new railway line in London have uncovered what they believe is a burial ground containing victims of the Black Death—a plague that wiped out as much as half of London's inhabitants when it swept the city ...

Recommended for you

The culinary habits of the Stonehenge builders

October 13, 2015

A team of archaeologists at the University of York have revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls – a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.