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. They were all young male adults. Cuts to the neck bones of 40 individuals (48.7%) indicated they had been decapitated, but the number of decapitations could have been higher. Several individuals had their heads placed in the graves in unusual positions, such as near the feet.

25 of the decapitations from Driffield Terrace were by a single cut to the neck. The direction of multiple cut marks on some of the skeletons suggested that the victim was relatively still and the majority of blows were delivered from behind. As well as the decapitations, there were unhealed blade injuries, fractures and evidence of a large carnivore bite mark.

These decapitated burials from Driffield Terrace have already been the subject of wide interest and there are many theories as to 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 burial ground of the 2nd and 3rd century AD at Ephesus, in ancient Greece. Excavated in 1993, 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 Driffield Terrace cemetery. The mix of adults from Britain and abroad in this burial ground 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 disproves the theory that the burials are the result of a “mass execution” of members of the Imperial Court after Emperor Septimius Severus’ death in York in AD 211.

The relative uniformity in age and sex of the individuals, 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.

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



Reconstructing a Roman Face

The face of a man of Central European origin excavated at Driffield Terrace has been digitally reconstructed in partnership with the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification of the University of Dundee. Facial reconstructions are made by specialist forensic anthropologists who rely on measurements and landmarks (standard reference points) on the human skull to add the missing layers of muscle to the bone. This allows them to reconstruct the contours of a person’s face, including the shape of the eyes, nose and mouth. A forensic artist then adds details such as eye and skin colour and possible hairstyles.   

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