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Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire

Archaeologists investigating a previously unknown Roman settlement ahead of a new housing development in Cambridgeshire have discovered the remains of a man with a nail through his heel.

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
The iron nail through the heel bone of Skeleton 4926
[Credit: Albion Archaeology]

A team including University of Cambridge osteoarchaeologist Dr Corinne Duhig believe this may be the “best preserved” example of a Roman-era crucifixion anywhere in the world.

The find, on the site of a former milk-bottling plant in the village of Fenstanton, was unearthed during the 2017 excavation of five small Roman cemeteries holding the remains of 40 adults and five children. The graves are mainly from the fourth century AD, and the contents have recently been fully analysed.  

Most of the remains showed signs of poor health including dental disease, malaria and physical injuries such as fractures. One male skeleton, laid out in his grave like the others, was found with a 5cm iron nail driven horizontally through his right heel bone (calcaneum).

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
Skeleton 4926, the crucified man, found in one of the Roman cemeteries unearthed
in the village of Fenstanton [Credit: Albion Archaeology]

Dental analysis suggests that the man – named Skeleton 4926 by archaeologists – was aged between 25 and 35, and around 5 foot 7 inches in height (average for the time). Radiocarbon dating techniques indicate he died between AD130 and AD360.

Skeleton 4926 was buried surrounded by twelve iron nails and alongside a timber structure thought to be a “bier” – or wooden board – on which his body may have been laid once removed from the cross.

His remains showed signs of trauma prior to death, including fractures on six ribs – likely caused by a blow, possibly from a sword – that were just starting to heal, and evidence of infection or inflammation on his legs including thinning of the shin bones: indicative of having been bound or shackled.

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
An archaeologist next to the grave of the crucified man
[Credit: Albion Archaeology]

The “13th nail”, the one penetrating the heel, was only discovered in the lab when the bones were washed. A smaller indentation was found next to the main hole, suggesting an initial attempt to nail him to the cross “misfired”.

Although crucifixion was common in the Roman world, osteological evidence for the practice is extremely rare, according to Duhig, as nails were not always used – the victim was normally just tied to a crossbar – and bodies were not typically given formal burials.

Where nails were used, it was common practice to remove them after crucifixion to be re-used, discarded or repurposed as amulets.

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
Pottery and other items were unearthed during the dig
[Credit: Albion Archaeology/Adam Williams]

“The lucky combination of good preservation and the nail being left in the bone has allowed me to examine this almost unique example when so many thousands have been lost,” said Duhig, a Director of Studies in Archaeology at two Cambridge colleges: Wolfson and Lucy Cavendish.

“This shows that the inhabitants of even this small settlement at the edge of empire could not avoid Rome's most barbaric punishment,” said Duhig, who is also a Senior Fellow of the University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and lecturer at the Institute of Continuing Education.

The excavation was led by David Ingham of Albion Archaeology, and the full results of the analysis are due to be formally published next year. The first details of the finds are reported today in the magazine British Archaeology.

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
An enamelled copper-alloy horse and rider brooch was one of the finds
[Credit: Albion Archaeology/Adam Williams]

Cambridgeshire County Council say they are currently working to arrange a museum exhibit to showcase the remains. “Burial practices are many and varied in the Roman period and evidence of ante-or post-mortem mutilation is occasionally seen, but never crucifixion,” said archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec from the Council’s Historic Environment Team.

A number of Roman artefacts were uncovered along with the human remains. Noteworthy findings included enamelled brooches, large numbers of coins, decorated pottery and significant quantities of animal bones displaying specialist butchery methods.

These, along with a large building and formal yard or road surfaces, indicated the presence of an organised Roman settlement with obvious signs of trade and wealth. 

Evidence of a Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire
An aerial shot shows the excavated site in Fenstanton, near Huntingdon
[Credit: JJ MAC LTD]

Archaeologists say the settlement might have been maintained as a formal stopping place along the road to service travellers around which the village grew, and there is some evidence to suggest that it developed at a crossroads.

Crucifixion was the main form of capital punishment in Roman times until Constantine the Great is outlawed the practice during his reign in AD 306-337. The punishment was in fact banned for citizens of the empire in AD212, according to Duhig and colleagues, although slaves could still be crucified and exceptions were made for certain crimes such as treason.

They point out that, while the osteological evidence of shackles – albeit inconclusive – may suggest Skeleton 4926 was a slave, or had experienced imprisonment before his death, he was given a standard burial within one of the community’s cemeteries.

Writing in British Archaeology, the archaeologists say it may also be the case that crucifixion persisted in this “wild land at the edge of empire”.

Source: University of Cambridge [December 09, 2021]

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1 comment :

  1. Where were the other nails placed? I am interested if your info can debunk or support the imagined images of Christ on the Cross.


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