Television Review: Headless Gladiators of York

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 6/17/2019


Archeologists deal with mysteries all the time, figuring out what happened in the past through artifacts, human remains, and ruins. Sometimes the mere discovery reveals a mystery that seems to boggle even the most experienced expert’s imagination. In 2004, over 80 ancient decapitated skeletons were discovered in York, UK during a construction project. It took years, but ancient scholars were finally able to propose an explanation for the condition of the bodies, and it revealed just how Romanized Britain had become by their time and offered us more evidence about the lives and careers of Roman gladiators.

The documentary Headless Gladiators of York gets our journey started with footage from the initial dig into the Driffield Terrace neighborhood, not far from the center of the ancient city of York. There are interviews with archaeologists who were called in to oversee the project as well as photos and video of how they processed the finds. The site does not appear to be a mass grave in that the burials took place at different times. The site is on the edge of a known Roman burial site, confirmed by pottery found with the skeletons. The placement of the bodies with the decapitated heads arranged between their legs was not according to Roman customs.

I recognized from other documentaries some of the generic talking heads (Kevin Discus and Darius Arya) this program calls upon to explain the role of York in the Roman world. I have a liking for documentaries about slavery and gladiators, but these are very common topics for Roman documentaries, showing that my interests are not unique. York was an important city that was large for the area and well supported by two emperors who go unnamed in this show.

Experts who studied the skeletons put in an appearance, reporting that most of them were male adults, all under 45 years of age. The remains show many wounds that had healed over their lifetime. Given that soldiers would not have been buried inside a city, perhaps these are someone else, and the hypothesis is put forward is that they might be gladiators. The rest of the episode examines the evidence to see if this theory is correct.

Examination of the skeletons was slow going and involved visual examination as well as DNA testing. Their wounds can show how they trained and fought. DNA can show where they lived, if they were not native to York. Many of the skeletons show that the men came from around the Roman Empire, which makes perfect sense for gladiators, who were part of a vast entertainment trade that pulled in humans and animals appealing to audiences because of their exotic background and appearance.

The program compares the York gravesite to a find of gladiators in Ephesus, where tombstones confirmed their careers. The show discusses Rome and the Colosseum for a while, but frankly that felt out of place, since no burial sites of gladiators were mentioned from Rome to compare with what was found at York. The study of the skeletons is interspersed with B-roll of scenes showing actors training and fighting like gladiators, and most often that footage feel showy, like the Colosseum scenes: perhaps pleasing to a viewer but not really offering much of substantive value.

Grave goods were also uncovered in the graves. Food was very common, as were coins. The coins establish that the site was used as a cemetery over a period of four centuries. The experts say that the burials were located along a major road and on high ground, suggesting that the living valued the gladiators highly. However, they were still slaves, and one skeleton had weights on his ankles that may indicate he was either being punished or being handicapped in bouts in the arena. But if they were so revered, why were there no tombstones or inscriptions? This rather obvious question was never posed.

While the skeletons’ wounds give evidence of what these men did in life, they also show how they were medically treated. This indicates that gladiators were valuable investments whose owners tried to keep them going as best they could. The types of wounds also indicate that some York gladiators (known as the bestiarii) fought against animals, which we know from literary and inscription evidence elsewhere. One skeleton’s pelvis showed what appeared to be bite marks, but it was damaged; rebuilding the pelvis via 3D modeling allowed the experts to determine the bite radius and narrow down what type of animal it might have been: in this case, an adult male lion (like the gladiator, not native to York).

Was this a prestigious cemetery? By the end of the program, I wasn’t convinced that it was. There was not enough information proving the theory that this was a high-status burial site; it was merely asserted, negligible evidence in favor of it presented, and then accepted. Generally, we think of the animal fights as less valued than the gladiatorial fights, so if bestiarii were buried here, does that invalidate the idea that this was a prestigious cemetery, or does it suggest that the value of different types of gladiators varied across the empire? This is another obvious question not posed in the show.

Ultimately the findings in York are very intriguing, but this show didn’t really answer enough questions as I watched. Too much was simply claimed without proof. The experts speculated that gladiators killed in the arena would be decapitated, but there is no corroborating evidence from the other gladiatorial finds they mention. Similarly, the placement of the bodies, with the heads between the legs, is never addressed after the initial statement and images of the skeletons in situ. Also, given that more than 80 skeletons were found but no all were male, I wanted information about the female skeletons. And I wanted to know about more than the handful of the buried males who were discussed in the program. Yes, I can find a lot of information about the York site online and in academic publications, but in order to give this show my recommendation, it would have had to offer much more information than it did.

Headless Gladiators of York was originally aired in 2017 as part of the Ancient Mysteries series on Channel 5 in the UK and then as part of Secrets on the Smithsonian Channel in the USA. It is produced by Blink Films, a London-based documentary film company. Both series rerun this episode from time to time, so check your local listings for show times.

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