Roman gladiator tombs found by team of 54 ‘dig hunters’ in Turkey

Top image: Evidence of gladiator tombs found at the ancient city of Anavarza, which was controlled by the Roman Empire for many years. Over the centuries, Anavarza was either controlled or attacked by the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid Caliphate, and the Mamluks of Egypt.

A team of fifty-four specialists in Turkey have been excavating in and around an ancient Roman amphitheater. They recently discovered an ornate burial area devoted to gladiator tombs.

The setting of this discovery is the ancient city of Anavarza. Strategically situated within the borders of present-day Dilekkaya village in southern Turkey, the settlement was founded during the Hellenistic period (323-32 BC). It became a key trading center connecting central Anatolia with Syria.

This was one of the most important cities of Cilicia, an early Roman province annexed to the Roman Republic in 64 BC that remained under Roman rule for several centuries. Anavarza was then one of the important metropolises in all Anatolia. In the 2nd century AD, Anavarza began expanding under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus. The city eventually became the “Capital of Cilicia” in 408 AD.

An aerial view of the area in ancient Anavarza city where the Roman gladiator tombs were found, note the fallen Roman Hellenistic columns.An aerial view of the area in ancient Anavarza city where the Roman gladiator tombs were found, note the fallen Roman Hellenistic columns.

Gladiator Tombs Question The City’s ‘Indestructible’ Moniker

Similarly to the folk that named the Titanic unsinkable, the founders of ancient Anavarza called their settlement “The Indestructible City.” In this instance of speaking too soon, or tempting fate, two major earthquakes in 525 and 561 AD sparked intense plague epidemics that brought the city to its knees. Thereafter, it lost its former importance as a result of constant wars across Anatolia.

According to a report on NTV Anavarza in Cilicia province was most famous for its magnificent defensive gate and ramparts. Furthermore, it was home to the “first double-lane road of the ancient world.” This 2,700-metre-long (8,860-feet-long) and 34-metre (37-yard) wide road, was decorated with 1.5-meter (1.6-yard) high columns.

Now, Turkish archaeologists excavating in the ancient city of Anavarza have unearthed “rare gladiator tombs.”

A 54-Strong Team Of Gladiator Hunters Looking For More

Over the last several years teams of archaeologists have been digging in the Roman amphitheater and the theatre of the ancient city. Anadolu Agency ( AA) reported that the “54-strong excavation, includes 30 scientists, 24 general staff and two archaeologists.” The recent digs have been led by Dr. Fatih Gülşen from Çukurova University. Dr Gülşen told AA that his team “found the tombs near the southern part of the excavation site, close to the amphitheater,” where it is believed the gladiators fought.

A previously found unfinished Roman sarcophagus, discovered in the necropolis area of Anavarza, Turkey.A previously found unfinished Roman sarcophagus, discovered in the necropolis area of Anavarza, Turkey.

The lead archaeologist explained that Anavarza covers an area of “1143 decares,” - a decare is equal to 1,000 square meters or approximately 0.25 acres. In this massive ancient space researchers have identified a “castle, mosaics, bathhouses, churches, triumphal arch, aqueducts, and rock tombs, stadium, and ancient theatre.”

However, standing above all of these structures, Gülşen said the amphitheater at Anavarza is special in that it is only “one of the four such examples in Anatolia.”

The Next Discovery Will Hopefully Be Gladiator Skeletons

While the team of archaeologists have now successfully identified where the gladiators’ graves are located, they are yet to put their hands on an actual gladiator bone or skeleton. Gülşen says the team expect to discover the bones of gladiators “and a necropolis” in their planned future excavations.

And when bones are discovered the handheld excavation tools will all be replaced by forensic microscopes and DNA analyzers, as a new team of lab scientists builds maps of where the warriors were raised, trained, and how they met their individual fates.

Where all this will get gory, but fascinating, is when the scientists have to distinguish between gladiatorial wounds. Meaning, the bodies will feature a range of horrific wounds and the scientists have to figure out which are caused by man and steel weapons, and which were inflicted by the jaws and claws of the animals that also fought with gladiators in Roman amphitheaters.

The Term Gladiator, however, Is not actually Correct is it?

Written Roman accounts, frescoes and mosaics tell archeologists and historians that fighters in the arena fought lions, tigers, aurochs, elephants, rhinos, bears, leopards, hippos and bison. Then, we, the public, are told in headlines that “Roman gladiators” fought these animals.

However, it is worth noting that the term “gladiator” is a generalization, and it actually means “swordsman.”

The specific type of Roman men (or women) who fought animals in the arena of death were called “bestiari” or “venators” (beast hunters). While these highly-trained outdoorsmen knew the ways predators moved and fought their prey, they were only lightly armed and not well protected. Hence, this will all get gory, and very interesting, when the gladiator skeletons are unearthed.


By Ashley Cowie / Historian and Documentarian

Ashley is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artefacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.In his 20's Ashley was based in Caithness on the north east coast of Scotland and walked thousands of miles across ancient Neolithic landscapes collecting flint artefacts, which led to the discovery of significant Neolithic settlements. Having delivered a series of highly acclaimed lectures on the international Science Festival Circuit about his discoveries, he has since written four bestselling non-fiction books. Elected as a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783, Ashley has been involved in a wide range of historical and scientific research projects which are detailed on this website – 2009 Ashley became resident Historian on STV’s The Hour Show and has since featured as an expert Historian on several documentaries. Ashley’s own documentaries have been watched by an estimated 200 million people and currently air in over 40 countries. NBC’s Universal’s hit-adventure show ‘Legend Quest’ follows Ashley’s global hunt for lost artefacts and is watched by over 5 million viewers in Australia, Asia and Europe every week. In North America, PBS’s ‘Great Estates’ was in Amazon’s top-ten “most downloaded documentaries 2016” and has been watched by an estimated 150 million people.

(Source:; August 11, 2022;
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