During 2004–5, York Archaeological Trust undertook excavations at Driffield Terrace in York. This site was part of a large cemetery on the outskirts of the Roman town of Eboracum, across the river from the legionary fortress.

What was found?

The excavations found 80 burials, of which 60 were mostly complete. Almost all were male, and the vast majority were adults. These people were on average some 2cms taller than the average male from Roman Britain, and they were more heavily built. This is a very unusual type of population for a cemetery.

several of the skeletons excavated

About 45 of the skeletons showed signs of decapitation, and about 20 showed signs of other sharp and blunt wounds that could have been fatal blows leading to a violent death. However, despite the evidence for a brutal death, all had been carefully buried, some having grave goods such as pottery and food placed beside them.

Decapitated and mutilated burials similar to these are known from other cemeteries in Roman Britain, although the York cemetery seems to have an unusually high proportion.

The search for answers, which continues, has suggested that these people could have been a group of gladiators, who lived and fought in York during the Roman occupation.

How had they died?

Further analysis is beginning to tell us more about the lives and deaths of these individuals. Meanwhile arguments continue; were these men in fact a group of specialised fighters who were both revered (as superstars) and reviled (as associated with death)? Or were they people who had been executed but given a decent burial? Perhaps they were soldiers who died in battle? Or was this evidence of a group of people who had unusual views on religion or burial practices?

These proposed explanations are summarised under the following headings:

Execution Religion
Military Gladiators

Some of the evidence fits all of these theories, and although a 'gladiator' explanation may be regarded as the current lead theory for the York burials, further study of the cemetery and the skeletons is needed. The search for answers continues...

Six of these skeletons were recently on display in Durham for you to explore the evidence and decide for yourself who these men were. For more information on possible interpretations of these six skeletons, click on the links below.


Opening times and prices

Please note: The exhibition is now closed