Genome technology has traced the origins of a group of headless men discovered in a Roman cemetery in York.
The remains of over 80 men, who were all aged under 45 when they were put to death 1,800 years ago, were excavated more than a decade ago by the York Archaeological Trust. The men, who were generally taller than average and well built, may have been gladiators, soldiers or criminals who died violently in the arena. The graveyard they were buried in would have been on the edge of the Roman city of York and is believed to be reserved for those who fought as gladiators or died in the arena. Despite their gruesome beheading, they were buried with honour with goods including animal bones from joints of meat. Most had healed injuries from battle or combat.
A team of scientists from the universities of York, Durham, Reading, Sheffield, Trinity College Dublin, the University Medical Center Utrecht, and York Osteoarchaeology, ran a whole-genome analysis on seven of the Roman skeletons, as well as the remains of a pre-Roman Iron Age woman found nearby in Melton, and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon man found in a Christian cemetery in Teesside.
Most of the York Romans had genomes similar to the Iron Age woman, suggesting that they were from the same region. Isotope analysis, however, showed that some of the men had spent time outside Britain and had suffered poor health in childhood. They all had brown eyes and black or brown hair, except one who would have stood out with blue eyes and blond hair.
Comparison with modern samples showed that the nearest descendants of the Roman Britons no longer live in Yorkshire but in Wales. The genes of the Anglo-Saxon man, however, were more closely aligned to modern populations in East Anglia and Holland. This reflects a probable shift westwards of Roman British populations following Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire.
One of the headless Romans was found to be of Middle Eastern origin. He grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to the British Isles and meeting his death in York.
Professor Matthew Collins, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said:
“Whatever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicate six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East. It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent.
“This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”
Source: Nature Communications