Tuesday 30 November 2010

Chronicles and Scribes

The Round Table Revealed? 
Part IV

The Slaughter of the Saints (2)

Continued from: Slaughter of the Saints (1): The Lost Monastery

“There is no reason to doubt the existence of an important ecclesiastical foundation at Bangor Isycoed, or its practical annihilation by ‘Ethelfrith about the year 615. There is equally little reason to doubt the foundation of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the church of St. Asaph, and the churches named in Domesday must have been in existence long before the compilation of that record. But of them not a vestige that can be recognized remains". [1]

Chronicles and Scribes
We must exercise caution in attempting to reconstruct history from traditional accounts but it must be stressed that we are searching for memories of the monastery at Bangor Is-y-coed. The history of the destruction of the monastery by Æthelfrith's Northumbrian army appears to have been neatly wrapped up in the account of the Battle of Chester. Apart from the mass grave at Heronbridge, which may or may not be connected, no evidence has yet been unearthed for the Dark Age battle of The city of the Legion actually occurring at Chester.

However, an account of such a battle does survive in traditional Welsh accounts. Geoffrey the author of Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) certainly had an affinity for Wales as he identifies himself as "of Monmouth" (Galfridus Monemutensis) in all three of his published Arthurian works. [2] Although he undoubtedly spent most of his working life in Oxford, it is thought he was was most likely born in Monmouth in south east Wales of Norman/Breton stock, and was appointed as Bishop of St. Asaph's in 1151 AD, although it is thought he never visited his see before he died c.1155.

River Monnow at Monmouth

Geoffrey certainly had access to some vernacular sources such as the Gildas' De Excidio Brittaniae, and Historia Brittonum, for example, from which he surely took elements, such as the story of the Dragons of Dinas Emrys, but is generally accused of “inventing” much of the remaining narrative, although in the prologue to the Historia Regum Britanniae, he insists that his work is a translation of a most ancient book in the British tongue presented to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford which he then translated in Latin. Many modern historians doubt the “most ancient book” ever existed, and in his own time he was accused of fabricating his “history”.

Writing before the end of the 12th century, William of Newburgh, claimed:  "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur ….. was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."

Although now considered by many to be little more than a fictional pseudo-history at the time Geoffrey’s opus appeared, regardless of comments by the likes of William of Newburgh, it was met with approval by most and generally considered a master piece of medieval literature, which many claim put King Arthur at the centre stage of British history. Indeed, it was not until the 17th Century that the veracity of the contents of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae as authentic history began to be seriously doubted.

Massacre of the Holy Men
In the History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey tells us that following the massacre of the holy men all the princes of the Britons met at Legecester (Chester) and made Cadwan (Cadfan) their king and under his command pursued Æthelfrith and his Anglian army as far as the Humber. They prepared for battle but came to an agreement that Cadwan should enjoy the part of Britain south of the Humber and Æthelfrith the part beyond it. In the meantime, Æthelfrith banished his own wife and married another. She, being with child, went to live with Cadwan in Gwynedd. She had a son called Edwin who grew up with Cadwan's son Cadwalla (Cadwallon). Needless to say, after a period of exile in Brittany, eventually Cadwalla and Edwin fall out over who will wear the crown of Britain. At first glance Geoffrey's chronology appears to be at fault here if Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin in exile at Gwynedd was the motive for the Battle of Chester as proposed by many historians. However, the account of Reginald of Durham, thought to derived from sources independent of Geoffrey, also has Edwin's Welsh exile after the Battle of Chester. [3] The chronology of events surrounding the battle is very significant in determining the motive for the destruction of the monastery and is something we will return to later.

The Brut Tradition
Following Geoffrey's Arthurian story several chronicles were produced which generally followed his account but added 'corrections' and additional material. Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut followed in c.1155, the first to introduce the Round Table. It is thought that Wace's source for much of his chronicle appears to have been a Breton variant of Geoffrey’s Historia, of anonymous authorship, which condensed and rephrased Geoffrey’s story. The Roman de Brut started, as did Geoffrey, with Brutus the Trojan a descendent of Aeneas and the mythical founder of Britain tracing the lineage of British rulers through the years to the time of Cadwaladr Fendigaid (Cadwaladr the Blessed), the last Dark Age Welsh king of Britain.

Thus, the Brut tradition had begun; a chronicle of British history always following Geoffrey's account and named after its first hero Brutus. Layamon, a cleric from Arley Regis in Worcestershire, England, followed around 1190, producing a translation of Wace into alliterative verse marking the first appearance of Geoffrey's story in English, further developing the theme of the Round Table.

These adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia became extremely popular throughout Western Europe during medieval times. Wace's chronicle, no doubt, was later used by many French writers of Arthurian romance, but the Brut proved especially influential in medieval Wales, where it was largely regarded as an accurate account of the early history of the Britons. Indeed, the Welsh people looked upon Geoffrey's account as preserving the true history of their race, so that Henry VII made some political gain out of his Welsh ancestry and found it to his advantage to claim descent from Brutus, the first king of the Island, and to trace his lineage through the heroes of Geoffrey's book. [4] Henry, Harri Tudor to the Welsh, came from an old-established family from Anglesey which claimed descent from Cadwaladr, Geoffrey's last ancient British king. Henry was known to display the red dragon of Cadwaladr on occasion and took it with the standard of St George on his victory procession through London following the Battle of Bosworth.

St Cadwaladr's Church Llangadwaladr, Ynys Môn

Consequently, the term Brut has come to mean collectively the Welsh redactions of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, Geoffrey’s work was guilty of confusing many traditional names and places in the translation into Latin. Perhaps he deliberately changed them to fit his story, but we will never know for certain if he was plainly incompetent or remarkably creative.

Welsh writers attempted to rectify these ‘mistranslations’ and produced their own, 'corrected', versions of Geoffrey’s story. However, we should not regard the Welsh renderings as straightforward translations; as such they are generally close to their Latin source text although the redactor of the Brut may have been following an early Welsh tradition. The task of the redactor was essentially to prepare a document for publication, which may require editing or revision, and was therefore at liberty to add some brief commentary of his own to correct locally known omissions, or append additional material from traditional lore to the text. For example, several Brut manuscripts include a version of the tale of King Lludd, an important character in Welsh tradition, known as 'Lludd and Llefelys', a tale which Geoffrey omitted from his chronicle but the redactor clearly felt should have been included.

The collective group of Middle Welsh variant versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin chronicle, is known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), tracing the time from Brutus to Cadwaladr, and translated into Welsh from the 13th century onwards. About 60 versions of the Brut y Brenhinedd survive, the earliest dating to the mid-thirteenth century. These Middle Welsh variants of the Brut have been classified as: Llanstephan; Peniarth (Ms 44); Dingestow; Peniarth (Ms 21); Cotton Cleopatra (B); and the Brut Tysilio. [5] The Welsh extended Geoffrey's chronicle from the death of Cadwaladr in 682 up to 1332 in Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes), thought to be a translation of an original Latin version, which has not survived.

The Cotton Cleopatra (B) version of the Brut y Brenhinedd, is generally accepted as being compiled in the 15th Century but there is considerable disagreement regarding the date of this manuscript. Although not of great literary value, the Cotton Cleopatra (B) is a composite of various elements not found elsewhere together; the dedicatory chapter for example appears in Welsh for the first time, whereas in earlier versions that include it at all it appears in Latin. The text contains many alterations and additions from Geoffrey's version, as such that it could almost be considered as presenting a new work in much the same vein as the works of Wace and Layamon.

An inferior copy of the Cotton manuscript is found in the Black Book of Basingwerk (Llyfr Du Basing), manuscript NLW MS 7006D, which circulated in North East Wales. This manuscript contains an imperfect version of the Chronicle of the Kings, written about the end of the 14th Century. Although the Cotton version generally provides a better text than the Basingwerk book there are passages where it is clearly at fault and occasionally the Basingwerk version preserves what appears to be the correct rendition, thereby demonstrating that it could not have been copied from the Cotton Cleopatra but both are probably derived from a common source. [6]

The Black Book of Basingwerk version, in addition to the Brut Tysilio, was used for the Welsh historical compilation attributed to the late 15th Century poet Gutun Owain (Gruffudd ap Huw ab Owain). Owain seems to draw heavily from local tradition and departures from the Cotton Cleopatra text are more numerous in his redaction of the Basingwerk variant than in the earlier part of the book and tend to increase as he continues.

Basingwerk Abbey

Originally thought to have been copied at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell, (St. Winefride's Well), Flintshire, it is now generally accepted that the Black Book manuscript was copied not at Basingwerk but at Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen, in Denbighshire, as the redactor, Gutun Owain, had spent nearly forty years of his life there and one of the sources he used in compiling this volume was a Valle Crucis manuscript (Peniarth Ms 20). [7] Significantly, The Black Book of Basingwerk circulated in north-east Wales immediately in the vicinity of Bangor Is-y-coed, situated some 25 miles from Basingwerk and only 15 miles from Valle Crucis.

In the Black Book of Basingwerk we find the following reference to the Battle of Chester:

“And after the coming of Ethelfrid had been told to Dunod, he sent to him two hundred of the wisest monks to ask him for his mercy to 'that holy house' and to offer him every good thing that might come to him as a return for leaving them in peace in their monastery to praise God and to serve God, for they had done him no harm. And after their message was told to Ethelfrid he had those saints killed. And he came with his army against the monastery, and against him came Brochwel, and fought with him boldly and fiercely and killed many on all sides. And that fight (?) was called the Battle of Bangor Orchard. [8]

Surely, it is beyond coincidence that a rendition of the Brut y Brenhinedd that circulated in north-east Wales and written a short distance from the site of the massacre of the holy men at Bangor Is-y-coed, where memory of the event would remain strong, refers to the Battle of Chester as Gweith Perllan Vangor, the Battle of Bangor Orchard, indicating that the redactor was aware of a local tradition that this conflict took place at Bangor not Chester.

Continued in Part V: The Battle of Bangor Orchard


1. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, ii – County of Flint, The Royal Commission on The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire. 1912
2. The Prophetiae Merlini c.1136 AD, Historia Regum Britanniae c.1139, and Vita Merlini, c.1150. Although later included in the Historia at Book VII The Prophetiae Merlini was originally circulated independently.
3. The Life of St Oswald, thought to have been written by Reginald of Durham c.1165, provides an account of Edwin's exile in Wales immediately following the Battle of Chester “where the monks of whom Bede wrote were slain”. Although Reginald's account follows Geoffrey of Monmouth on several points, there are many differences in the two, suggesting they are both drawing independently on traditions which had much in common and not found in Bede. Cited in Nora Chadwick – The Conversion of Northumbria in Celt and Saxon; Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge, 1964, pp. 149 – 151.
4. Brut y Brenhinedd, Cotton Cleopatra version - edited and translated by John Jay Parry, the Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1937.
5. Brynley F. Roberts, Brut Y Brenhinedd, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1971, pp.xxiv-xxxix.
6. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.
7. The core of manuscript NLW MS 7006D is a version of Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), sometimes referred to as the Brut Gruffydd ab Arthur, (the Chronicle of Geoffrey son of Arthur, an alternative name for Geoffrey of Monmouth), a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, prefaced by Ystoria Dared, (The History of the Trojan War), a Welsh version of the Latin Dares Phrygius, the account of Dares a Trojan priest, retelling of the events leading up to the destruction of Troy. Gutun Owain continues Geoffrey's history with another chronicle, Brenhinedd y Saeson (Kings of the English), which provides a record of events in Wales and England up to 1197. The continuation from 1197 to 1332 is based on two versions of Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes). Owain continues the text to 1461 AD, a date probably close to the time when he was writing – The Black Book of Basingwerk (NLW MS 7006D), The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
8. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.

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Saturday 20 November 2010

Shadows in the Mist

King Arthur

Shadows in the Mist
August Hunt

“August Hunt brings a bold new interpretation to Arthur’s military sphere, in the process adding his voice to an increasingly large chorus of voices that place the famous war-leader not in the West Country, which has claimed him for many hundreds of years, but in the north of Britain, along the borders between England and Scotland.” - John Matthews

The publication of August Hunt's new book King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist by Avalonia Books, due 31 October 2010, is said to be imminent.

The book claims to re-open the debate on the historical existence of the legendary King Arthur, with August Hunt joining the rank of modern authors [1] arguing for the actual existence of a war leader in Dark Age Britain called King Arthur. Recently Hunt provided a critical treatise on his blog of Thomas Green's Concepts of Arthurthe most recent opponent of the idea of a historical Arthur”. [2]

In this work, Hunt is said to re-consider the source material with a new and original approach, exploring the historical evidence, looking at place names and local folklore, to provide a challenging argument for the actual existence of King Arthur.

The blurb on the author's Facebook page promotes this book as “thoroughly considering the place names associated with Arthur’s battles and other significant contemporary sites like towns and Roman forts, the author shows through onomastics, geography, archaeology and philology how they are all based on real historical places on the English-Scottish border. Not only this, but they also point to both the location of Camelot and to Arthur’s final resting place of Avalon, near to Hadrian’s Wall.” [3]

I certainly find it hard to see how the author can claim to bring “academic rigour to the study of and quest for the historical King Arthur as opposed to the mythological figure who developed from folk memories and legends.[4] Much of Hunt's work is typically based on medieval romance and poetry and not original source material simply because none exists for an historical Arthur. [5] Owing to the absence of available source material any attempted reconstruction not reliant on conjecture is inevitably forced to delve into myth and folklore. Consequently, using medieval romance and poetry it is possible for anyone, and everyone, to reconstruct an account of “King Arthur”. However, all of these Arthurian works claiming to have identified the king, leave the reader thinking, “perhaps, maybe” but fail to present any solid evidence whatsoever to be convincing in providing a conclusive “yes, definitely”.

Hunt's constant rewrites are frustrating; the articles on Faces of Arthur were continually updated and much of that material was included in the original Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur (Hayloft, 2006). Indeed my copy of the book included a 'Corrigendum' referring the reader to the website for updates; for example the 4th article “the identification of Noquetran with Tanberry, pp 111 -115, is incorrect. The real site, Windy Edge, is discussed at” [the website]. I can understand corrections to production errors and omissions due to restrictions of space, but this seems like a complete change of mind post-publication and leaves one with a nasty taste in the mouth wandering how much of the book the author actually believes in, or will he change his mind – again!

In the Shadows in the Mist the author set out to try to reverse the current academic trend of 'Arthur denial', the increasing tendency of scholars to question the historical existence of Arthur. And like other books claiming to reveal the real King Arthur 'Shadows in the Mist' could not resist identifying his final resting place.

From the publisher on Shadows in the Mist: “What little we can learn about a possible historical King Arthur must be gleaned from accounts of his battles recorded in written form in the ninth century AD. Other than these accounts, which are really nothing more than listings of place-names, there is the doubtful testimony of heroic poems, pseudo-histories, medieval romance, modern fiction and Celtic Reconstructionism. Valuable as these first early sources on Arthur's battles would appear to be, their veracity has been brought into question by a generation of scholars. Rather than seeking firm identifications for the battle sites, an exercise in philological and geographical investigation which might well point the way to a viable historical candidate for Arthur, scholarly opinion in general now rests content with concluding that no historical Arthur ever existed. "Shadows in the Mist" seeks to reverse this academic trend in an effort to return the field of study to its proper sphere of endeavour: the eventual discovery of a genuine historical Arthur. To accomplish this goal, the author embarks on a systematic treatment of the battle site place-names. Identifications made for these battle sites will display an obvious pattern of military activity and suggest not only a power centre, but the most probable location for the king's final resting place. With Arthur's territory clearly defined, a critical re-examination of the Arthurian genealogy preserved by Welsh tradition will reveal the true identity of the great Dark Age king”. [6]

Inevitably, this new book, King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist is said to be a new edition of that 2006 work. No one could be a bigger fan of the elusive Arthur than me, I've studied the Arthurian legend for over thirty years, and I really wish someone could show me some incontrovertible evidence for his existence as a Dark Age war leader. We await publication of this new edition to see what evidence is contained in the new material; hopefully not the poorly reproduced black and white photographs from the previous publication.


1. See Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot a review of Revealing King Arthur by Christopher Gidlow in which the author set out to reverse the academic trend of the last 30 years denying the actual existence of a Dark Age warlord named Arthur.
2. Thomas Green versus King Arthur by August Hunt.
3. August Hunt's Facebook page.
4. Ibid.
5. Writing in the early 6th Century and within memory of the Seige of Mount Badon, Gildas fails to mention Arthur; odd if he had been the battle leader at the Britons greatest Dark Age victory over the Anglo Saxons. The English sources such as Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle also fail to mention him. The earliest historical account we have is the list of Arthur's battles in the 9th Century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) written down several hundred years after the events and even by then it contained Arthurian folkloric elements in the Mirabilia, The Wonders of Britain.
6. Shadows in the Mist - Hayloft Publishing.

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Saturday 6 November 2010

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Recently isotope analysis has identified 51 decapitated skeletons found in a mass grave in Dorset as Vikings. Now recent research has shown that the 'Headless Romans' found in a cemetery in York came the from distant lands of Eastern Europe.

Mystery of York's 'Headless Romans'
York Archaeological Trust undertook excavations during 2004 and 2005 in advance of construction work on two sites close to the line of one of the main roads out of the Roman town. Archaeologists suspected the probability of finding further burials there as Roman graves had been previously found in the area on the outskirts of Eboracum, the name of the Roman town of York, and Roman cemeteries were often placed alongside roads outside the city walls.

These excavations at the site of a 3rd century Roman burial ground at Driffield Terrace in York revealed 80 burials, of which 60 were mostly complete. The vast majority were well-built adult males, averaging some 2 cms (one inch) taller than the average male from Roman Britain, their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion; most of these people had died violently. About 45 of the 60 mostly complete skeletons, showed signs of decapitation, with about 20 showing evidence of injuries that had penetrated bone which would have almost certainly been fatal blows. About a third had suffered wounds and fractures that had healed and no doubt there were probably other wounds that had penetrated only the soft tissue leaving no evidence.

Decapitated and mutilated burials similar to these are known from other cemeteries in Roman Britain, but the York cemetery seems to have an unusually high proportion; a very unusual type of population for a typical Roman cemetery. However, despite the evidence for a generally hard and violent life and brutal death, these people had all been carefully buried between the late 1st and early 4th centuries AD, sometimes with grave goods such as pottery and food, at a cemetery
Although headless burials are not unknown, to see so many in the same place is unprecedented anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most intriguing is what had been done with the skulls of the skeletons; of the decapitated skeletons, about 30 were buried with their heads placed on their shoulders but others had their heads placed between their knees, on their chests or by their feet. In one double burial the two bodies even had had their heads swapped over.

In 2006, isotope analysis of tooth enamel suggested that the men came from from every corner of the Roman Empire; Britain, the Mediterranean, the Alps and even as far away as North Africa. This has led to suggestions that the 80 men could have been elite Roman soldiers. In 2006 the BBC Timewatch program 'The Mystery of the Headless Romans' put forward the proposal that the men could have been from Emperor Severus' household, executed by the Emperor Caracalla who died, stabbed to death by his own body guard in 217 AD. But this is pure conjecture.

June this year (2010), it was announced York's headless Romans might have been Gladiators and portrayed in the Channel 4 program 'Gladiators: Back from the Dead' with Driffield Terrace being cited as the 'worlds only well-preserved gladiator cemetery'. The key evidence for the gladiator claim is the discovery of a large, carnivore bite mark and a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry due to prolonged weapon wielding from an early age. Further evidence in support of the gladiator claim is the healed and unhealed weapon injuries and possible hammer blows to the head; a feature attested at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, the first authenticated gladiators graveyard.
The remains of 67 individuals was discovered in 2007 at Ephesus, Turkey, nearly all aged between 20 to 30. Many with evidence of healed wounds, suggesting they were prized individuals receiving expensive medical care; one body even possesses signs of a surgical amputation. Pathologists discovered various unhealed wounds on bones, for example tell-tale nicks in the vertebrae, suggesting at least some of the bodies suffered a fate of execution being consistent with depictions on reliefs from the time showing a kneeling man having a sword rammed down his throat into the heart. A very quick way to die.

Bioarchaeological Analysis
To shed some light on these mysterious skeletal remains a scientific team under Gundula Müldner, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Reading with colleagues from Reading and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, recently carried out multi-isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains.

Scientists normally only examine strontium and oxygen isotopic systems to calculate an individual's origins but on this occasion the scientists took samples of teeth and bone and analysed isotopes of strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, combining information about the individual's diet with the type of climate and geological setting. Isotopes are absorbed by our teeth and bones from our food, drinking water and the air. Their proportions vary around the world due either to differences in regional geology or climate, so they provide important clues about where individuals spent their childhood years. Oxygen (O) and strontium (Sr) are fixed in dental enamel as our teeth form. The enamel does not alter significantly with age, therefore oxygen and strontium levels can be matched fairly closely to the geology and climate of the place an individual grew up. The oxygen and strontium isotopes indicated that just five of the men tested had probably grown up in York.

Müldner's team also tested 68 individuals for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in order to obtain clues about their diet. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes are absorbed from our food and can be measured in dentine or bone collagen samples, providing scientists with information about land and sea foods in an individual's diet as well as the balance of plant and animal protein. They also distinguish plants that photosynthesis in different ways to produce different proportions of the isotopes known as C3 and C4.

In addition, there are two stable carbon isotopes known as C-12 and C-13. The common isotope that makes up about 99% of all natural carbon is C-12 with C-13 only accounting for only about 1%. Plants of the C4 group, which are adapted to hot, dry climates and include maize, sorghum and millet, tend to fix C-13 more readily than C3 group plants, such as wheat, rice and barley, which do better in temperate climates. Thus by measuring the ratio of C-13/C-12 in bone it can be possible to derive the proportion of C3 and C4 plant groups in the diet of the sample.

Of the 68 individuals tested for carbon and nitrogen two in particular had eaten diets with distinctly high carbon isotope ratios, indicating the consumption of C4 plants, or the products of animals raised on them. To have consumed enough of their distinctive diets to produce these unusual isotope results, the scientists concluded that these two individuals must have come from abroad. The only 'C4 plant' cultivated in Europe at the time was millet, but it was almost certainly not grown in Britain during this period, possibly because the climate was too wet. Indeed, millet is not known to have been cultivated in Britain in the Roman period or at any time before.
They discovered that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. The results revealed that at least two had a diet rich in plant during their childhood, consuming C4-plant based protein probably millet, that wasn't grown in Britain at that time. Dr Müldner said, “This approach was very important in this case, because it has given us information about these unusual burials that would have been missed if only strontium and oxygen had been analysed.”

Müldner deduced that as we had not seen similar values in Britain before, nor much in Europe in the Roman Period, the "Headless Romans" likely came from as far away as Eastern Europe, with the evidence of previous combat scars suggesting that the men led violent lives. He added, “the headless Romans are very different [physically] than other people from York, coming from all over the place. Some of them are quite exotic."

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Far from solving the enigma of the 'Headless Romans' the results seem to have deepened the mystery; if they were not local people it raises the question who they were and what were they doing in Roman York?

It has been suggested that if these decapitated individuals who died a violent death were not gladiators or a warrior elite they may have been executed criminals or members of a religious cult who suffered a ritual killing. Post-mortem decapitation is known to have been carried out by superstitious Romans to prevent some people returning as ghosts; the head is thought to be the seat of the soul, consequently if the head is separated from the body the soul escapes and the dead will not be able to walk the earth.

Non-Roman citizens would normally undergo a harsh and degrading execution, such as crucifixion or being thrown to wild animals in the gladiatorial arena. But some, such as early Christian martyrs, appear to have been buried after their execution. Roman citizens could be executed by decapitation although authorities sometimes prevented certain individuals being given a decent burial, perhaps in order to prevent them reaching the afterlife. The suggestion that at least some of the York individuals may have been executed criminals is supported by one of the skeletons being found with heavy lead leg-shackles. A few of the ‘decapitated’ burials show no signs of cuts on the vertebrae possibly as a result of hanging, which would have been followed by burial some days afterwards when the head may have become detached from the body. The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant as death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence where it can easily be seen by many. But it is unlikely criminals would have been given such a burial.

Ritual Killings
The Celts venerated the head as the seat of the soul and are well attested for their cult of the head and these beliefs persisted into the Roman period. It has been suggested that the decapitations and the additional injuries are reminiscent of ritual killing by way of the triple death of human sacrifices as practised in the pre-Roman world of the Celts. The sacrifice of adults for religious reasons was banned by the Emperor Augustus, however this does not necessarily mean that such practices did not continue and deposits of horse and other animal bones with some the burials, along with other grave goods, suggest that ritual played a part in many of the burials.

Warrior Elite
The vast majority of the burial group being well-built adult males, taller than the average male, with their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion with most bearing evidence of a violent death, immediately suggests an elite group of warriors provided with special status amongst society.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st Century AD, describes how the Catti warriors were given elite status amongst the tribe and took part in Arminius' Germanic tribal coalition that annihilated Varus' legions in 9 AD in the Teutoburg Forest. Soldiers were executed for desertion and other court martial offences, which could result in punishment by decapitation. Alternatively, the injuries may have been the result of soldiers killed in battle and whose bodies were recovered by their own side and given a decent burial. But this would not explain the pelvic injury apparently caused by a large carnivore as seen on one of the skeletons.

It is estimated that up to a million gladiators are thought to have died in arenas across the Roman Empire. Roman Britain was second only to Italy in the number of purpose-built gladiatorial arenas in Europe. It is assumed York had its own amphitheatre, although evidence of it remains elusive, so the presence of gladiators here should not be surprising.

All the Driffield Terrace individuals were male and the majority killed by decapitation, suggesting an unusual group of people. These people were taller than the average Romano-British male and more robust. Significantly in about a third of the skeletons, one arm slightly longer than the other, the right humerus of one skeleton being 18mm longer than the left, suggesting one-sided work from an early age, perhaps representing prolonged sword practice. Although we cannot rule out the possibility of other occupations, such as archery or blacksmithing, which may also cause the over-development of one arm, it would seem unlikely to be a group of smiths. Men with similar asymmetry, muscular arms, have been excavated at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey.

Blunt force trauma, i.e. a blow to the head, found on a number of the York skeletons appears to be evidence of methods that were used to kill vanquished or dying gladiators by a slave in the arena dressed as the god of the Underworld and armed with a large iron mallet who despatched any fatally wounded gladiator with a sharp blow to the head.

The Injuries to the pelvis are consistent with carnivore toothmarks, evidence perhaps of a gladiator being bitten about the hip by a large carnivore such as a lion or a bear. Gladiator versus animal fights were common events in the arena and undertaken by a specially trained and equipped fighter known as the bestiarii or venatores. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of a common Roman method of execution, in which criminals were tied to a post in the arena and left to the mercy of beasts.

The 'gladiatorial' explanation of these decapitated burials at York seems the more likely with the use of the cemetery at Driffield Terrace being continued for some time in different phases, dating from the early 3rd to 4th century, indicating that this was not a single mass event, but occurred over a number of years and corresponds with deaths from gladiatorial combat which appear to have risen in Roman Britain at this time. Evidence from tombstones suggest an average age of 27 for gladiators.


New technology helps piece together story of York’s Roman ‘Gladiators’
Cutting edge genome technology, hailed as being the next step on from DNA analysis, has cast more light on a mystery that has perplexed archaeologists for more than a decade. The origins of a set of Roman-age decapitated bodies, found by York Archaeological Trust at Driffield Terrace in the city, have been explored, revealing a Middle Eastern body alongside native Europeans.
Tracing the origins of Roman-age decapitated bodies found in York

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