A crucifixion in Cambridgeshire

The site where the bone was discovered.(Photo: Albion Archaeology)

Archaeologists working in Cambridgeshire have made a discovery of international importance. The discovery occurred at Fenstanton, where excavation has revealed five small Roman cemeteries, where 40 adults and five children were buried. The cemeteries have been dated to the mid to late third, or early fourth, century AD.

As with many such Roman-era cemeteries these were sited along the course of a Roman road. This road was the so-called 'Via Devana,' linking the Roman settlements of, what are now, Cambridge and Godmanchester, and part of a longer routeway running between the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester) and Deva (Chester).

The excavation uncovered a number of other items – as well as the bodies – including brooches (one an enamelled copper-alloy piece in the form of a horse and rider), many coins, slip-decorated fine pottery, and butchered animal bones.

However, the find that has caught the attention of the archaeological world is that of the body of a man with a nail through his right heel bone. The nail in question had been hammered horizontally through the back of the man's ankle and heel. It is almost certainly evidence of crucifixion.

The skeleton also had signs of other injuries suggesting brutal treatment prior to execution. The bones of the legs had marks indicating either infection which penetrated to the bone, or inflammation of surrounding tissues which may have been caused by disease or by being tightly bound or manacled. These injuries were identified on his left ankle and lower leg; and also on his right shin bone. Aged in his late twenties, or early thirties, he had clearly been found guilty of some serious crime.

The grave of the crucified man was discovered during excavation, in advance of a new housing development, by Albion Archaeology.

Death at a Roman roadside service station?

It is possible that the crucified man was a slave or a lower-class manual worker. He had lost most of his back teeth, suffered from two painful tooth abscesses and experienced degenerative arthritis in his back. Clearly, he had lived a hard life and died a violent and shocking death.

A number of the other skeletons discovered at the site revealed evidence of trauma injuries (including fractures), which may suggest hard manual labour. Overall, the community appears to have suffered poor physical health, severe dental disease, and some seemed to have had malaria (a common ailment in East Anglia until early modern times).

(Photo: Albion Archaeology)

The place in which they lived, and died, was probably a servicing point for travellers on a well-used road. They may represent the hard-worked slaves, or lower-class community, employed in the roadside service industry.

A brutal and degrading punishment

While recently working on a study of the history of the Christian cross in faith and culture over 2,000 years ('The Story of the Cross'), it was once again shockingly clear to me that crucifixion was designed to be brutal and humiliating.

Darius I of Persia used crucifixion as a punishment for political opponents in the sixth century BC, according to the later Greek historian Herodotus. Alexander the Great and the Carthaginians of North Africa employed it too. From these uses it was adopted under the Roman Republic and later Empire as a suitable punishment for slaves, non-citizens or citizens found guilty of treason. When the slave revolt of Spartacus was defeated in 71 BC the Roman general, Crassus, crucified 6,000 prisoners from the army of ex-slaves. The avenue of the dead and dying lined the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

Under the Roman Empire, at the time of Jesus, many people in his home region suffered this form of execution. In 7 AD a rebellion occurred in Judea following the death of King Herod. After its suppression, the Roman Legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, crucified 2,000 Jews in Jerusalem. In 70 AD the Roman general, Titus, crucified somewhere in the region of 500 Jews a day over several months during the siege of Jerusalem, following a widespread revolt against Roman rule.

The manner of death in crucifixion was terrible. Unless the body was supported in some way, the full weight of the victim hung from the arms (whether bound or nailed) and death from muscular spasms and asphyxia would occur within two or three hours. As the victim grew weaker it would be harder for them to pull themselves up on their arms, in order to breathe. To prolong the agony, the Romans sometimes added a small seat (pointed to cause additional pain) to give the body some support; at other times a foot support was provided. In these cases, it could take as long as three days for the victim to die.

The importance of the discovery at Fenstanton

Until this find, there was only one secure, archaeologically attested, example of Roman crucifixion. Although three finds before this one had been suggested to indicate crucifixion – from La Larda near Gavello, in Italy, Mendes in Egypt and Giv'at ha-Mivtar, Jerusalem – many experts considered the Jerusalem one to be the only convincing example.

In 1968, the Israeli Department of Antiquities excavated a series of tombs at Giv'at ha-Mivtar, north of the walled city of Jerusalem. There they discovered the first (and, until the Cambridge example, the only) archaeological evidence of the use of crucifixion. They found a stone box containing human bones: an ossuary. Scratched into the side of the box were the words: "Yehohanan, son of Hagakol." Inside the box the archaeologists found a heel bone with an iron nail driven through it. The position of the nail is comparable to that found in Cambridgeshire, which strengthens the interpretation of the latter as being a crucifixion.

The Giv'at ha-Mivtar ossuary also contained the bones of a child, aged three or four years. Some experts believe that "Hagakol" was not a personal name but, instead, was a term meaning "crucified." In which case, the inscription should be read as: "Yehohanan, son of the Crucified One." If so, Yehohanan was the child's name. The matter remains open to debate.

In the case of the victim in the Jerusalem ossuary, it seems that the nail bent as it hit a knot in the wood (a piece of olive wood was found on the tip of the nail). The bent nail was hard to remove after death and so the entire foot was hacked off but kept with the body. A small plaque of wood (either acacia or pistacia) survived between the head of the nail and the bone; probably to prevent the foot from tearing free of the nail.

Initial study of the bones suggested that the actual position on the cross was formed by twisting both legs to one side (with the knees bent) and putting a single large nail through both heel-bones to fix them to the front of the cross. This would have formed a semi-sitting position with the man's body twisted to one side. There must have been some support under the victim, in order to prevent the collapse of the body and to prolong the agony.

A scratch on one bone of the right forearm seemed to indicate that his arms were nailed to the horizontal bar and that the nail was driven in just above the wrist. It seemed that the man's legs were finally brutally broken, in order to accelerate death. This is what the Gospel of John describes as happening to the two criminals crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-32).

Some of these conclusions have been challenged, with some experts later arguing that the heels were actually nailed separately to either side of the upright post and questioning whether the arms were nailed and the legs broken. The arms may have been tied – instead of nailed – to the cross-beam and Roman writings refer to both practices.

The account of Jesus' death in John's Gospel says that his "hands" were nailed as well as his feet. However, it should be remembered that the Greek word used in the New Testament could describe the wrists as well as the hands; and Jesus' arms may have been both tied to give support to the body and nailed (through either wrists or hands). The same word translated as "hands" in John is translated as "wrists" when later describing where chains were fixed on the Apostle Peter.

Why so little archaeological evidence for crucifixion?

Many people will be astonished that there are only two archaeological examples of such a widespread practice. In fact, it is not surprising. Hand-forged, large, iron nails were valuable objects and would have been removed from corpses after death in order to be used again. To find evidence of crucifixion, the nail needed to have been left in the bone and the bone to have survived in sufficient state of preservation for the relationship of bone to nail to be clear to excavators.

In addition, crucifixion victims were frequently left on their crosses to rot and disintegrate. In such circumstances the likelihood of the survival of a bone pierced by a nail was very low. At other times they may have been left on rubbish heaps.

Consequently, three factors need to be present in order to provide archaeological proof of crucifixion: the nail(s) left in position in the corpse, disposal of the body by burial, sufficient bone survival to allow for analysis. Thousands will have experienced this terrible death without leaving archaeological evidence of their suffering.

However, now we have two examples: from Giv'at ha-Mivtar and from Fenstanton.

"The word became flesh..."

The proximity of this archaeological announcement to Christmas reminds us of the deep truth at the core of the Christian message. It is that the belief in the incarnation (God became a human being) is as shocking as it is astonishing and inspiring. In Jesus we see the love of God revealed in a life that starts in a cattle trough and ends on a Roman gibbet. Christmas is intimately connected to Good Friday. And, as Christian faith insists, to Easter morning.

The discovery of the body at Fenstanton reminds us once again of the terrible nature of crucifixion. When John wrote that "The word became flesh" (John 1:14), he was well aware that this involved experiencing the full depth of human existence, including suffering and humiliation. That this included crucifixion was shocking, then and now. No wonder that the Apostle Paul wrote that, to many, such a belief was "a stumbling-block" and appeared to be "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The earliest representation of Christ's crucifixion dates from about the year 200, not long before the Fenstanton man was executed. It was found on the Palatine Hill, in Rome. It was not made by Christians. It is an example of graffiti designed to offend. A human figure raises a hand in worship to a person naked on a cross; the crucified person is depicted with the head of a donkey. Below the crude sketch these words are scratched in Greek: "Alexamenos sebete theon," which, despite some complications in the hastily-written Greek, is most convincingly translated as: "Alexamenos worships [his] God."

We do not know who scratched it into the wall and, similarly, we do not know who Alexamenos was. What is clear is that the person who produced this graffito was mocking Alexamenos and his Christian beliefs. It is a reminder of how shameful a death crucifixion was in the Roman Empire and the controversial nature of a religion which declares that its God had been nailed to a cross. The man crucified at Fenstanton would have understood this.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021) and The End Times, Again? (2021). The book that explores the history of the Christian cross in belief, art, and culture is: The Story of the Cross (2021), co-written with his younger daughter.