Gruesome evidence of ancient Roman head hunters in London
A report in the Journal of Archaeological Science published earlier this year revealed grisly evidence of beheadings and brutality inflicted upon the Roman Empire’s gladiators, criminals and war victims.
Several dozen skulls uncovered in the heart of London provided the first proof of Roman head hunters who gathered up the heads of executed enemies or fallen gladiators from the nearby amphitheatre and exposed them for years in open pits.
The discovery was made in a site by the Walbrook stream in what was known in ancient times as Londinium, a thriving capital of a Roman province nearly two millennia ago. The area was a site for burials and ritual activity, as well as mundane pursuits.
While the heads were found back in 1988, they were only analysed this year, using improved forensic techniques. The skulls bore marks of trauma from blunt force or edged weapons, the new microscopic wear analysis shows, indicating smashed or slashed faces, fractures of the eye and cheekbones, and blows to the back of the head.
"We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you'd give two of them swords and have them kill one another,” said Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London. “Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process."
Although pits of body parts have been found in Britain, the London skulls, deposited over several decades, are an unprecedented find from the Roman capital. Redfern argues that riots or gangs can't explain the collection of skulls. "There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare, or other acts of organised violence in London during the period that these human remains date from," she said. There are therefore "two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman headhunting—a tantalising prospect."
In the future, the archaeologists hope to pursue isotope analyses aimed at uncovering where the skulls' owners originated, which may reveal whether they were executed locals or merely unfortunates from faraway places, perhaps gladiators, who met a grisly end in Old Londinium.
"Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives – but as we now know, not everyone. This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life," said Redfern.
By John Black