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World's best-preserved gladiatorial relics are discovered in the suburbs of York

Eighty skeletons – including one apparently killed by a large carnivore – found close to city centre

Archaeologists investigating an ancient Roman burial site in Britain have identified what may be the world's best preserved remains of gladiators and other arena fighters who entertained audiences through bloody confrontations with wild animals.

Eighty skeletons have been unearthed at the site in Driffield Terrace, south west of the centre of York, over the past decade. One man appears to have been killed by a large carnivore – almost certainly a lion, tiger or bear. Others have weapon impact damage and many of them have specific features, including marks on their bones, consistent with tough training regimes.

"Our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators and others who died in the arena. So far, a number of pieces of evidence point towards that interpretation or are consistent with it," said the archaeologist leading the investigation, Kurt Hunter-Mann of York Archaeological Trust.

The discovery – the subject of a Channel 4 documentary next Monday – is of international importance and promises to shed new light on life in Roman Britain. One important piece of evidence is the unusually high number of men with their right arms markedly longer than their left – a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with gladiators.

About a quarter of the 80 skeletons excavated at the York site display this characteristic, and around half of those have particularly significant asymmetry, with right arms between 1 and 1.8cm longer than their left, according to a detailed survey of the material carried out by forensic anthropologists at the University of Central Lancashire.

The discovery suggests that some men started their training at an early age, probably in their early to mid teens. Arm length asymmetry can only develop prior to reaching skeletal maturity.

Slave owners often sold troublesome slaves to gladiatorial training schools, and some gladiators did start their careers as teenagers. Almost all the skeletons are of males who were extremely robust and mostly above average height – all facts consistent with a gladiatorial interpretation – and most also show evidence of considerable muscle stress.

The anthropologists were able to identify the specific muscles involved – mainly those implicated in shoulder and arm movement – by examining tell-tale attachment marks on the bones.

Similar stress evidence is present in 85 per cent of the skeletons – despite the fact that the men died at different times over a 250 year period. This consistency strongly suggests that many of them had been involved in similar activities during their lifetimes.

Current evidence from scientific tests and cranial data analysis indicates that the men came from many different parts of the Roman Empire, probably including central and eastern Europe and North Africa.

"We don't have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world," said Dr Michael Wysocki, a senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, who examined the York skeletons. "The material is particularly significant because it includes such a broad spectrum of injuries associated with interpersonal violence."

One of the most puzzling aspects of the cemetery is that most of the men were decapitated. Although some may have sustained injuries in the period immediately before death, in most cases decapitation appears to have been the act which killed them.

It is known that defeated gladiators were often "executed" in the arena by their opponents – but scholars have always thought that it was done by a sword stab to the throat. The York decapitations are from the back of the neck, suggested that a wider range of arena coups de grâce were employed.

Several of the York skulls had holes that may have been caused by terminal hammer blows – a feature also seen in the fragmentary remains at a Roman cemetery in Ephesus, Turkey, where it was interpreted as a sign that the dead were gladiators.

The skeletons discovered at York date from the late first century AD to the 4th century AD. All the men were buried with some respect, and 14 were interred together with grave goods to accompany them to the next world.

The most impressive is that of a tall man aged between 18 and 23, buried (probably in a coffin) in a large oval grave at some time in the 3rd century. Interred with him are the remains of substantial joints of meat from at least four horses (represented by 424 horse bones) possibly eaten at his funeral, as well as some cow and pig remains. He had been decapitated by several sword blows to the neck. After burial, a low mound up to a metre high seems to have been placed over his grave.

Significantly, the man who had been killed by the bear or lion was buried in an adjacent grave, along with two others with similar ritual deposits. These men had also been decapitated. Scientific analysis of their bones suggests that they came from an extremely hot environment, possibly North Africa.

Some other graves had pottery in them. Another had a whole sheep, while some had horse or chicken remains. Throughout the Roman Empire, fellow gladiators often ensured that proper funerary arrangements were made for their colleagues.

One particularly enigmatic man was buried with heavy weights, in the form of iron rings just above his ankles. Forensic examination of his lower leg bones suggests that he had probably worn them for several years. Only one other example of this is known – from remains uncovered at Pompeii – and it is likely that these men were forced to wear the rings as a punishment. However, the York example had similar muscle stress to many of the others and had also ended up being decapitated.

Investigations into the skeletal remains are continuing. Although the archaeologists' main theory is that the men were gladiators or other arena fighters, it is conceivable that the cemetery may have been for people with infamia (socially disgraced) status – which would include criminals as well as gladiators and beast-fighters.