Roman burial site suggests that female gladiators fought in Britain

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The Independent Online

Archaeologists from the Museum of London believe they may have discovered the the first known burial site of a female Roman gladiator.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London believe they may have discovered the the first known burial site of a female Roman gladiator.

Four years ago, the museum's archaeologists unearthed the late first century or early second century grave, in Southwark, south London, ofa woman who had been cremated and given a relatively high status funeral.

But only now, after extensive examination, have they been able to assess the discovery fully and decide she may have been a gladiator.

Hedley Swain, head of the museum's Early Department, said the site contained rich artefacts suggesting a very singular and important person was buried there. "There is evidence of a very exotic and high-status feast, including dates, almonds, figs and a dove," he said.

The position of the objects at the burial site suggested an unusual form of cremation, in which the body was burnt over a pyre, which collapsed into a pit. The pit was outside a walled cemetery, a common practice when burying gladiators and others considered outside normal society.

Archaeologists also discovered 16 ceramic objects in the grave, including a lamp depicting a gladiator and three others showing the Egyptian god Anubis, associated with the passage of the dead to the underworld. Mr Swain said: "We all have a very familiar image of gladiators as personifying Roman brutality, bloodlust and cruelty. But there is a more complex form of ideas linked to gladiatorial combat, which had their origin in funeral games."

The unveiling coincides with the museum's Roman exhibit-ion, High Street Londinium. There will be a gladiatorial com-bat re-enactment on Saturday.

But the discovery, far from shedding light on ancient gladiatorial combat, is more likely to cause a fair amount of modern academic conflict. Many academics are highly sceptical about the museum's claim of finding evidence of a female gladiator.

One leading authority on Roman women, Dr Mary Beard, of Cambridge University's faculty of Classics, said: "The evidence for this particular grave being that of a female gladiator seems thin. Lamps with images of gladiators are 10 a penny in the Roman world and we have no idea whether gladiators were buried inside or outside cemeteries."

Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at the University of Newcastle, said: "I suspect this lady was an ordinary member of a merchant family from North Africa."

But Museum of London experts are unrepentant. "There is plenty of evidence which suggests the grave may well have been that of a female gladiator," said Nick Bateman, a leading archaeologist at the museum who has studied gladiators.