Sunday, October 31, 2010

Headless Romans of Eboracum focus of new studies

Just in time for Halloween - I see that the Journal of Archaeological Science has released the results of a study of 80 headless Roman skeletons that were unearthed back in 2004 and 2005 in York - ancient Eboracum. In an effort to determine their place of origin through differences in their diet that had been transmitted to their bones, a team led by Gundula Müldner of the University of Reading in the U.K analyzed the skeletons for the presence of different elemental isotopes.

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine
Period  2nd century CE Marble.  Photographed
at the  Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas.
"Based on the geology and climate of where a person grew up, their bones hold telltale traces of isotopes absorbed from the local food and water," Mülder explained.
Oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones of the headless Romans indicate that just 5 of the 18 individuals tested came from the York area...The rest of the men came from elsewhere in England or mainland Europe, possibly from France, Germany, the Balkans, or the Mediterranean. Traces of carbon and nitrogen show that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. And two individuals had a carbon signature from a group of food plants—including sorghum, sugarcane, and maize—not known to have been cultivated in England at that time.
Although Mülder's team favored evidence that the men were probably Roman soldiers because Eboracum contained a large garrison and the skeletons bore evidence of contact with bladed weapons, other evidence suggests the men may have been gladiators.
Evidence for this notion includes some skeletons' unequal arm development—associated with the specialized use of single-handed weapons—and, on one skeleton, tooth marks from a large carnivore, possibly a gladiatorial lion or bear.

"If the carnivore bite mark is indeed genuine, then, why not, they may indeed have been gladiators," Müldner said. - More: National Geographic
However, if they were gladiators, I wonder why so many were decapitated? Even gladiators ritually killed in the arena were not usually decapitated. However, decapitation was a common practice by victorious Celts if you think about the evidence found by Germanicus and his troops sent to retrieve the remains of the legions massacred in the Teutoburg Forest. Celts also routinely kept and employed war dogs, quite large and capable of inflicting substantial tooth marks. As for the unequal arm development, veteran legionaries would probably exhibit the same physical trait from training and frequent use of their weapons.

A Good background series on the Roman Invasion of Britain: (Part 1 of 5 - other parts will appear in a list to the right of this clip on YouTube.)

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409 (Penguin History of Britain)   Roman Invasion of Britain   Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest   QUEST FOR THE LOST ROMAN LEGIONS: Discovering the Varus Battlefield  Centurion [Blu-ray] (Limited Edition + Digital Copy)
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