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DNA Analysis Of Decapitated Romans Sheds Light On Ancient Gladiator Burials

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Even centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the lives and deaths of gladiators are still a topic of interest for researchers today.

These once ruthless, armed combatants had entertained Roman audiences by participating in violent, often bloody confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals and condemned criminals.

Archeological findings have even allowed us to discern that about 100 schools and camps where gladiators could live and be trained were once established. However, these institutions were destroyed since the fall of the Roman civilization.

These kinds of discoveries shape the way we look at history.

A Baffling Mystery

One particular archeological discovery located more than 10 years ago on Driffield Terrace – land that would have been the edge of a Roman city – had left experts baffled.

Scientists from the York Archeological Trust had found something unusual at a certain third-century Roman burial site in York, England. Instead of the typical mix of age and gender, unearthed on the burial site were more than 80 skeletons of well-built adult males, all under 45 years old when they died. These skeletons were believed to be 1,800 years old.

Several of these men were decapitated. Buried with the skeletons were the skulls, but they were not positioned consistently. Some skulls were placed on the chest, some within the legs of the skeleton, and some at the feet. Their skeletons were also buried with goods such as what had been joints of meat.

Archeologists speculated that these skeletons belonged to Roman gladiators, even though they could have easily been skeletons of criminals or soldiers. The remains had old and recent injuries from combat or battle, and all except one skeleton had brown eyes and brown hair.

What made experts believe that these were gladiators was that the demographic profile of the York remains were similar to the population structure in a Roman burial ground designated for gladiators at Ephesus.

Initial examinations of the skeletons revealed much about their lives, but it was not until a DNA analysis conducted by a group of experts that the origins of the skeletons were unraveled.

Solving The Mystery Through A Genomic Study

In a report featured in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from Trinity College Dublin, universities of Durham, York, Reading, Sheffield, the University Medical Center Utrecht and the York Osteoarcheology studied radioactive isotopes that can show where a person spent his or her early life.

The team also ran a whole DNA analysis on nine of the skeletons. Seven skeletons from the cemetery in York, an Anglo-Saxon man and a pre-Roman Iron Age woman.

Their genomic study revealed that most of the York skeletons had genomes similar to that of the pre-Roman Iron Age woman who was found in east Yorkshire. This suggests that these skeletons were from the same region.

However, variations in isotopes indicated that some of the skeletons had spent time outside Britain in their early lives. Through this, the team also found that many of the men suffered poor health during childhood.

When compared with modern DNA samples, researchers found that the closest descendants of Roman Britons were not in Yorkshire but in Wales.

Professor Dan Bradley, head of the Trinity team, said the findings confirm the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire.

Christine McDonnell of York Archeological Trust believes the use of genome research is a remarkable advance in investigating migration and population patterns, and it will become the standard in studying the origins of skeletons in the future.

"As the field grows and costs of undertaking this kind of investigation fall, we may be able to refine our knowledge of exactly where the bodies were born to a much smaller region," she added.

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