Researchers discovered the remains, some of which feature marks that could reflect the violent manner in which some individuals died, during a continuing archaeological and forensic investigation in York.
Kurt Hunter-Mann, a field officer at York Archaeological Trust who is leading the investigation, said bite marks on one of the skeletons helped steer the team to their preliminary theory.
He said: “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.
“Other important pieces of evidence include a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry – a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with a gladiator; some healed and unhealed weapon injuries; possible hammer blows to the head – a feature attested as a probable gladiatorial coup de grace at another gladiator cemetery, Ephesus, in Turkey.”
The research, which features in a Channel 4 documentary, Gladiators: Back From The Dead, on Monday, June 14, has involved the investigation of 80 skeletons unearthed at the site in Driffield Terrace, just west of the centre of York, over the past decade.
Hunter-Mann said nearly all the skeletons had features consistent with gladiators – the majority were male, very robust and mostly above average height.
“The arm asymmetry would also be consistent with weapons training that had already started in teenage years,” he said, “and we know from Roman accounts that some gladiators entered their profession at a very young age”.
The skeletons date from the late first century AD to the 4th century AD.
All the individuals were buried with some respect – and 14 of them were interred together with grave goods to accompany them to the next world.
The team said the most impressive grave was that of a tall man aged between 18 and 23, buried in a large oval grave sometime in the 3rd century.