In 2004/5, 59 inhumations and 13 cremated burials were excavated at 3 Driffield Terrace; part of the vast Roman cemetery situated on the Mount, outside the city walls. A few months later, 23 inhumations and one cremation were uncovered at 6 Driffield Terrace. Of the individuals found, 39 (58%) had been decapitated; several had their heads placed in burial at different points in relation to their body.

25 of the decapitations from Driffield Terrace were by a single cut to the neck (74.4%).  The direction of multiple cuts suggested that the person delivering the blows, or the victim, had not moved.  The majority of the cuts were delivered from behind.  Other than the decapitations, there were unhealed blade injuries, fractures and evidence of a large carnivore bite mark. These decapitated burials from Driffield Terrace York have already been the subject of wide interest and many theories have suggested who they were; whether gladiators, soldiers, criminals or slaves.

The high proportion of younger adult males and frequency of violent trauma could indicate they were gladiators. The demographic profile at Driffield Terrace most closely resembles a recently excavated burial ground of the 2nd and 3rd century AD at Ephesus, in ancient Greece. This has been interpreted as a burial ground for gladiators.

The Roman army had a minimum height for recruitment and fallen soldiers would match the young adult profile of the cemetery. The mix of adults from Britain and abroad could suggest the later practice of enlisting soldiers locally.

The burials took place over the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, possibly into the 4th. This means that an interpretation of a single “mass execution” of members of the Imperial Court after Septimius Severus’ death in York in AD 211 cannot be the whole story.

Their relative uniformity in age and sex, their above average height, and their burial in the area of The Mount, one of the most high-status cemeteries of Roman York, does not suggest that they were slaves.

The discussion continues through this multi-faceted project which is providing a series of training opportunities, new genomic, isotopic and osteological research, and resources to create a touring exhibition ensuring that this important element of our collection is made accessible to a much wider UK based audience.

A facial reconstruction of one of the skulls found at Driffield Terrace


This work followed the project undertaken during Resilience Year 1, more information for which can be found here.


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Selected Roman Small Finds from the Cemetery at nos. 3 and 6 Driffield Terrace, York, by H.E.M. Cool

Driffield Terrace by K. Hunter-Mann

Gleaming, white and deadly’: Using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain.

‘The ‘Headless Romans’: Multi-isotope investigations of an unusual burial ground from Roman Britain

Preservation of the metaproteome: variability of protein preservation in ancient dental calculus by  Meaghan Mackie , Jessica Hendy , Abigail D. Lowe , Alessandra Sperduti, Malin Holst, Matthew J. Collins & Camilla F. Speller

Unearthed Issue 1 – 3 Driffield Terrace, York: Vertebrate remains analysis by Alison Foster

Unearthed Issue 3 – 6 Driffield Terrace, York: Vertabrate remains analysis by Alison Foster and Deborah Jaques


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3 and 6 Driffield Terrace 2004.354 & 2005.513


Gladiators exhibition at Whitehaven

CT scans from the bones found at Driffield Terrace

  • Leg fracture
  • Leg tibia (cross section)
  • Pelvis bite
  • Vertebrae (cross section)
  • Skull and spine (cross section)
  • Upper vertebrae

Driffield Terrace skeletons

  • 1213-181-sk-4344-iron-rings-detail
  • sk_1025_-fractured-arm-Myrmillonis
  • sk_4164-long-arm-Retiarii
  • sk_4344-ankle-rings
  • sk_4448-horse-man-Equites
  • sk_4471-Blow-to-head-Thracian
  • Skeleton_6DT19-Bestiarii