Headhunters' Trophy Skulls Uncovered From Ancient London

Ancient gladiators, criminals, and war victims may have been beheaded, suggests ancient skulls discovered from Roman-era London.

By Dan Vergano
Published 9 Nov 2017, 03:37 GMT
Photograph by Time & Life Pictures, Mansell, Getty

Beheadings and brutality aplenty marked the deaths of the Roman Empire's gladiators, criminals, and war victims, suggest forensic archaeologists looking at skulls from ancient London.

The thriving capital of a Roman province by A.D. 100, Londinium (now London) held Roman legions, restive Britons, and an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games. Along one of London's "lost rivers," the Walbrook stream, the city also held tanneries and burial pits. 

In a new Journal of Archaeological Science report by Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London and Heather Bonney of London's Natural History Museum, analysis of 39 skulls uncovered from those pits—many bearing marks of decapitation and other brutality—tell a gory tale of ancient times.

"It is possible that these represent the remains of executed criminals, gladiators, and trophy heads," Redfern says. "We are confident that injuries we observed on these human remains could not have been caused by accident."

Gladiators were famously one of the chief entertainments of the Roman era, fighting in various costumes and with a range of weaponry in amphitheatres across the empire. While Roman art often depicted gladiators brawling and legionaries brandishing the heads of defeated enemies before emperors, the skulls provide direct evidence of ferocious lives and deaths in the ancient empire. 

Skull Trauma

In 1989, archaeologists uncovered the skulls from a series of pits connected to tanneries and from a well once located along the Walbrook stream. Most dated to A.D. 120 to 160, when ancient Londinium was at its height, and belonged to men between the ages of 26 and 35.

Skulls from all of the pits 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.

The jawbone of an adult male was found in an open pit with marks of dog gnawing.
Photograph by University of London

Indicating they had led rough lives, eight of the men's skulls bore signs of previous healed fractures. Most of the skulls showed signs of some wounds healed prior to the owner's traumatic death.

In death, just over half of the men's skulls bore freshly acquired marks of multiple wounds to the head, including broken or slashed jaws. One of the men's skulls, buried alone, directly betrays cut marks indicating he was beheaded. The lonely burials of the rest of the skulls (only one thigh bone was found along with them) in the pits point to decapitation as well, the study suggests, before or after death.

Londinium Gladiators?

The study authors suggest that these signs of hard lives might mean the skulls belonged to gladiators defeated in Londinium's amphitheatre, located at the time close to the Walbrook.

In the study, they write, "Evidence for decapitation could reflect the dispatching of mortally injured combatants in the amphitheatre." Although Roman gladiators often received formal funerals, they add, "the bodies of many amphitheatre combatants were not claimed and would have been excluded from formal burial grounds and funerary practices."

However, Harvard's Kathleen Coleman, an expert on Roman gladiator customs, is dubious. "The mutilated human remains found in [the] Walbrook stream sound as though they could have been victims of thuggery, gang warfare, or urban rioting," she says.

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 by email. Therefore, she sees "two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman headhunting—a tantalising prospect."

Trajan's Column in Rome, for example, and other Roman public works depict Roman soldiers displaying the heads of "barbarian" enemies defeated in battle. The skulls found in London lack the damage associated with being mounted on posts after decapitation, one display practice of the time, but that doesn't mean they weren't otherwise exhibited after execution or death in Londinium's amphitheatre, say the study authors.

However, without tombstones such as those found at a known gladiators' cemetery in the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, "there is no evidence to link these skeletons with gladiators," concludes Coleman.

Roman Justice

That leaves other possibilities raised by the study authors, namely that the skulls either belonged to executed criminals or were war trophies collected by Roman legionaries.

"The Roman military were strongly associated with headhunting practices," says the study. Stationed at Hadrian's Wall for frontier skirmishes, they would have had plenty of opportunities. The evidence of beheading, some of the puncture wounds, and the sheer number of noggins all suggest that "some of these remains derive from trophy heads."

Alternatively, criminals might have been killed and then left for display after death. One skull found at the site appears to have been gnawed by a dog before being tossed in a pit.

"The view of bloodthirsty Romans has wide currency, but this is the first time that we have evidence of these types of violent acts in London," Redfern concludes. For now, she says the evidence is open enough to allow for the skulls coming from any or all of the possibilities—gladiators, criminals, or war trophies—raised by the study.

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.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

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