Coming soon to Falkirk: Beheaded gladiators from 200 AD – will we not be entertained?

The word gladiator may bring to mind a group of spandex sporting muscle men and women competing on a television game show or Russell Crowe dishing out bloody revenge in his epic 2000 film of the same name.

However, if you attend the Gladiators – A Cemetery of Secrets exhibition, which will be on display at Falkirk’s Callendar House from May 19 to October 6, the sight of six skeletons dating from around 200 AD will probably replace old Russell and the telly Gladiators.

It will certainly be a hard image to get out of your head.

Back in 2004 York Archaeological Trust dug up 80 burials dating from the early 2nd Century in Driffield Terrace, just outside York city centre.

This site was part of a large cemetery on the outskirts of the Roman town of Eboracum, across the river from a legionary fortress and the discoveries displayed evidence which suggests these people could have been a group of gladiators, who lived and fought in York during the Roman occupation.

The six skeletons featured in the exhibition belonged to men – four of whom appear to have been decapitated – who all had suffered a number of injuries prior to their deaths.

Now the Jorvik Group has shipped all these amazing artefacts north of the border to allow people in Falkirk, tourists and visitors to see this exciting exhibition up close and personal.

Gillian Smith, Falkirk Community Trust exhibitions manager, said: “About a year-and-half ago the Jorvik Group got in touch with us asking if the Gladiators – Cemetery of Secrets exhibition would be something we would be interested in.

“We thought it would be amazing – with the Roman connection and Falkirk’s Antonine Wall this is the perfect place to hold the exhibition. We are the first location in Scotland to host it.”

Sarah Taylor, Jorvik exhibitions manager, said: “I think it’s great to bring the exhibition to a place with real Roman connections. Due to space, we’ve split the exhibition into two sections – the upstairs room will be concerned with life in Roman times while the downstairs room will display the skeletons and ask questions about who they were and what happened to them with a really strong scientific element to it.

“The exhibition has been really popular in the past – a mixture of a popular topic like gladiators which will hopefully draw people in and then, due to the science, it will make the subject real for them.”

Sarah and her team, which includes collections manager Ninenke Van-Doorn and collections assistant Becky Simpson, were unpacking the ancient relics when The Falkirk Herald arrived to get a sneak peek of the exhibition, which features an upstairs hands-on area for children, allowing them to explore a Roman market with associated activities and games, as well as a chance to get their hands on some replica clothing, helmets and armour.

The mystery the skeletons pose, they were all men in their early 20s or 30s, is a big part of the Gladiators – A Cemetery of Secrets exhibition. Just what did these men go through in their short, violent lives?

Sarah said: “There are still things we don’t know – and may never know – about these men and what happened to them. Quite a lot of the trauma and injuries they suffered are quite unique and not something you find every day.

“One skeleton shows marks associated with an animal attack and we know that animals were used in gladiatorial combat. There is also a skeleton found with leg irons which were moulded around his ankles – probably fitted after he was dead.”

The community trust has enlisted the help of a dozen volunteers, who will all receive a briefing from Sarah, to help guide people through the exhibition during its run from May to October.

The exhibition – both the Roman life room and the skeletons display area – is just part of the Roman-themed events and activities which Falkirk Community Trust has lined up for people to enjoy over the coming weeks.

A thrilling display of gladiatorial combat will take place in the grounds outside Callendar House this weekend to mark the launch of the exhibition.

As well as full contact combat action with various weapons, the demonstration will also include a talk on the life of gladiators, who were forced to fight for the entertainment of others.

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