Sometime between 130 and 360 C.E., a 25- to 35-year-old man in what’s now Cambridgeshire, England, died by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire. His skeleton—found with a telltale nail hammered through its heel bone—represents one of the few surviving physical traces of the ancient punishment, report David Ingham and Corinne Duhig for British Archaeology magazine.
“We know a reasonable amount about crucifixion: how it was practiced and where it was practiced and when and so on from historical accounts,” Ingham, project manager at Albion Archaeology, which conducted the excavation, tells Jamie Grierson of the Guardian. “But it’s the first tangible evidence to actually see how it worked.”
Archaeological evidence of crucifixion is rare, as victims often didn’t receive a proper burial. Additionally, most crucifixions used rope rather than nails to bind the condemned to a cross.
According to BBC News, scholars know of only three other possible physical examples of crucifixion during the ancient era: one found in La Larda in Gavello, Italy; one from Mendes in Egypt; and one from Giv’at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem.
“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,” says Duhig, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, in a statement.
Excavators discovered the remains, dubbed Skeleton 4926, during a dig conducted ahead of construction in the village of Fenstanton in 2017, reports PA Media. The community stands along the route of the Via Devana, an ancient Roman road that connected Cambridge to Godmanchester.
Per the statement, Fenstanton’s Roman-era settlement included a large building, a formal yard and road surfaces. The team found enameled brooches, coins, decorated pottery and animal bones at the site, which likely featured a workshop where the bones were split to extract marrow that could be used to make soap or tallow candles, writes Amy Woodyatt for CNN.
In total, the researchers uncovered five small cemeteries containing the remains of 40 adults and 5 children. Dated mainly to the fourth century C.E., most of the bodies bore signs of hard living, including evidence of dental disease, malaria and physical injuries.
As Alok Jha explained for the Guardian in 2004, the practice of crucifixion probably began in Persia between 300 and 400 B.C.E. Under the Roman Empire, crucifixion was viewed as a shameful execution method reserved for enslaved people, Christians, foreigners, political activists and disgraced soldiers. Cause of death was typically suffocation, loss of bodily fluids and organ failure. Victims could take between three hours and four days to die, according to a 2003 study published in the South African Medical Journal.
Skeleton 4926 showed evidence of severe suffering endured before death. According to a separate Cambridge statement, the man’s legs bore signs of infection or inflammation, possibly caused by binding or shackles. Six of his ribs were fractured, likely by blows from a sword.
Researchers found the man’s body buried alongside a wooden board and surrounded by 12 nails that were likely removed after he was taken down from the cross.
A smaller indentation spotted next to the main hole on the man’s heel suggests a failed attempt to nail him down to the board.
Ingham tells Owen Jarus of Live Science that thinning of the man’s bones indicates he was likely chained to a wall for a long time prior to being crucified.
The archaeologist adds that the man and other people in the cemetery may have been enslaved. Per the Guardian, DNA analysis found that Skeleton 4926 was not genetically related to any of the other bodies found at the site but was part of the area’s native population.
“[E]ven [the inhabitants of] this small settlement at the edge of empire could not avoid Rome’s most barbaric punishment,” says Duhig in the statement.
The team’s findings are due to be published in an academic journal next year.