Lions and tigers and bears

For those of you with any archeological interests… and I don’t mean liberal liturgists…

From Reuters:

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

(Reuters) – Archaeologists believe they may have found the world’s best-preserved gladiator cemetery after noticing animal bite marks and combat injuries on some of the 80, mainly headless, Roman skeletons unearthed at a site in the city of York in northern England.

Oddly Enough

"At present our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators," said Kurt Hunter-Mann of York Archaeological Trust, who is leading the excavations.

Forensic anthropologist at the University of Central Lancashire, Michael Wysocki, who examined the remains, called the find an internationally significant discovery.

"We don’t have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world," he said.

Experts have puzzled over the human remains since the first group of skeletons were exhumed in 2003 in an area slated for a housing development just west of the city center.

Subsequent digs close to the site unearthed more skeletal remains, prompting various theories about their origin, including that they may have been victims of a 3rd century Roman political purge or executed criminals.

But the team of archaeologists leading the investigation say the fact most had been decapitated undermined the military connection, while ample grave goods found with the burials tended to rule out common villains.

Evidence that the cemetery had been used for over 200 years and that the bones dated from the late first century to the fourth also made the experts think again.

The breakthrough came when detailed forensic research showed bite marks and a number of bone injuries, healed and unhealed, that are consistent with gladiatorial combat.

"One of the most significant items of evidence is a large carnivore bite mark — probably inflicted by a lion, tiger or bear — an injury which must have been sustained in an arena context," Hunter-Mann said.

The fact that most of the remains were from well-built young males with evidence of much stronger right-arm muscular development also supported the arena link.

Roman historical records describe slaves beginning their training as gladiators in their teenage years.

Wysocki said nothing like the deep bite marks had ever been identified before on a Roman skeleton.

"It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2000 years ago," he said.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. I thought the ancient Romans cremated their dead.

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    In Rome proper, they customarily cremated. But the further out you got in the provinces, the more existing local customs took over. And York was WAY out of town. To get an idea, read “On the Great Wall” by Kipling.

    The gladiators were sort of combination rock stars and professional athletes. They had fans, groupies, the whole thing. Sudden death was just by lions, tigers, or other gladiators instead of drugs or alcohol.

  3. TonyLayne says:

    In Rome proper, gladiators—especially retired gladiators—were often hired out as bodyguards. But I don’t think there was much call for that kind of security out in Eboracum.

  4. Sacristymaiden says:

    Neat post!

  5. Maltese says:

    Looking at the living looking over the dead, I can’t help but be reminded of this famous quot of

    “This mortal life endures but a moment…Very soon you will be among the
    dead…Remind yourself constantly of all the doctors, now dead, who once
    beat their brows over their suffering patients…or the philosophers who
    once discoursed endlessly about death and immortality…recall, one by
    one, those you knew, who would bury someone only to be buried in-turn,
    all in a short amount of time…notice how short, trivial and transient
    is all of life…think of those who greedily hung onto their lives. Do
    they have advantage over those who die young? Either way, the earth
    now covers them…look at the abyss of time past, and the eternity yet
    to come.”

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (cir. 170 A.D.)

    But in Christ, we have Eternal Hope! Really, what DO we have outside of Christ? Christ IS the eternal Hope, the eternal Beacon of life everlasting. Without Him, we have nothing but vain desires….

  6. Eric says:

    “It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2000 years ago,” he said.

    Everybody knows English pubs have only been around for 1500 years or so.

  7. Tom Ryan says:

    wasn’t aware that tigers were used

  8. Re: pubs

    There were certain big differences between pubs and tabernae, but it’s a reasonable translation for a joke.

  9. Re: Roman tigers

    There’s the old Caspian or Persian tiger, now probably extinct:

    Tigers were used in the arena, on occasion. Nice mosaic subject, if you were a Roman artist doing gladiator mosaics.


    This is from Roman Tunisia, but ships went from North Africa all over the Roman world.

  11. AnAmericanMother says:


    In taberna quando sumus
    non curamus quid sit humus,
    sed ad ludum properamus,
    cui semper insudamus.

    Carmina Burana

    But no tigers, except the kind who prowl with dice.

  12. irishgirl says:

    Very interesting post.

    AnAmericanMother-oooo, I love ‘Carmina Burana’!

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