The mystery relates to a third-century Roman burial site in York in England which led to a discovery that has had experts guessing ever since its discovery in 2004. The site was unusual in that, instead of the usual mix of sex and age, the 49 skeletons found were all well-built adult males, under the age of 45. Several were found decapitated.
Their skulls were buried with the body, although not positioned consistently. Some were on the chest, some within the legs, and others at the feet.
Archaeologists have speculated that the skeletons belonged to gladiators, although they could also have been soldiers or criminals. The demographic profile of the York skeletons resembles the population structure in a Roman burial ground believed to be for gladiators at Ephesus.
Although initial examinations of the skeletons revealed much about the life they lived, it was not until a genomic study done by a team from Trinity College that the origins of the men could be uncovered.
Seven of the skeletons were selected for genome analyses. Most of those sampled had genomes similar to an earlier Iron Age woman from Melton, east Yorkshire. The researchers found that poor childhood health of the men suggests that they were locals who endured childhood stress.
However, their robust skeletons and healed trauma, suggest that they were used to wielding weapons.
The nearest modern descendants of the men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales.
However, one of the decapitated Romans was found to be of Middle Eastern origin. He grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before travelling to Europe and meeting his death in York.
Professor Dan Bradley, who led the Trinity team, said it confirms the “cosmopolitan” character of the Roman Empire.
“Whichever 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,” he said.
As well as Trinity College, the multi-disciplinary scientific analysis involved scientists from the University of York and The York Archaeological Trust, as well as the universities of Durham, Reading and Sheffield, University College London and the University Medical Centre in Utrecht.