LONDON (Reuters Life!) - 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.
"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.
Editing by Steve Addison