Secrets of The Dead

It has been assumed that the venereal disease syphilis was first introduced to Europe by the ship Columbus in 1942 after the sailors contracted the disease from Native Americans.

However now a skeleton, unearthed in an English friary is sending shock waves throughout the world of archaeology.

An archaeological excavation dig in Hull's city centre has uncovered human remains of 240 people. The analysis of these bones showed signs of syphilis in more than 60% of the skeletons. In particular, the skeleton of a young man displayed extreme bone malformations characteristic of venereal syphilis. This skeleton dates back from 150 years before the Columbus crossing.

This leaves us with the question: So if the Americans didn't give syphilis to us, who gave it to whom?

In "Gladiator Girl" In a journey through time stretching from Roman London to the bleak wastelands of the Russian Steppes, Secrets Of The Dead: Gladiator Girl pieces together new evidence for the existence of female gladiators. The result is an investigation that explores the darkest corners of the Roman psyche as it travels across the ancient Empire, illuminating this macabre world and challenging established perceptions about the role of women within it.

It has long been known that female fighters were used in Roman arenas but no physical remains have ever been positively identified of either male or female gladiators. Four years ago, archaeologists from the Museum of London unearthed a late first century or early second century grave in Great Dover Street, South London. After extensive examination, the museum's team believes they may have uncovered evidence that is sending shock waves through the academic world. The Roman grave - less than a mile from the site of the London's Roman amphitheatre - bore witness to a distinctive and unusual form of cremation. Ceramic objects were uncovered and there was evidence of an exotic ritual implying a funeral of note. But this person was buried among society's outcasts: prostitutes, criminals and slaves, far away from the cemeteries of the wealthy elite. Furthermore, it was a woman. Close examination of her cremated bones reveals she was slight, probably over 30 years and free of disease when she died.

Gladiator Girl has exclusive access to these finds and has gathered some of the world's leading archaeologists and historians, from both sides of the Atlantic, to interpret them. Among these are the Museum of London team that excavated Great Dover Street Woman and Harvard classical scholar Kathleen Coleman who advised Ridley Scott on the making of his epic film Gladiator. Coleman's new interpretation of a little studied stone relief in the British Museum provides crucial new evidence on how female gladiators fought and their status in the Roman Empire. The two female gladiators are depicted in a fighting stance and are called Achillia, after the Greek hero Achilles, and Amazon. The relief is from Halicarnasos in part of modern Turkey. This was the home of the Amazons - the giant warrior women who fought the ancient Greeks. Broadcaster and Amazon specialist Lynn Webster-Wilde describes these female fighters as "incredibly beautiful in an athletic way, well-developed with erect breasts and wearing something skimpy probably - well-armed and well-protected. And their character would be a combination of extraordinary ferocity and ruthlessness; a cold ruthlessness."

Did the Amazons inspire the idea for female Gladiators or was England's own warrior Queen Boudica their role model? In Gladiator Girl specially trained women depicting female gladiators reconstruct the highly ritualised combat of the Roman amphitheatre. We do know that by AD 70 - when the Great Dover Street woman lived - the games were 400 years old and innovation was sought. Increasingly elaborate and decadent shows - often with thousands of participants - were being staged. The re-enactment of epics and bloody battles were favourites. So why were female gladiators at their popular peak in this period? Gladiator Girl attempts to solve this problem and ultimately puts forward a new understanding of female gladiators. The findings change our perceptions of the Roman world, demanding a radical redefinition of the role of women in Roman society.

Genre: History Documentary

Running Time: 60 minutes (approx)

4/5 Stars

Classification: PG Certificate