See the Face of Roman Britain’s Only Known Crucifixion Victim

A forensic artist has reimagined what the man may have looked like 2,000 years ago

Facial Reconstruction
Forensic scientist Joe Mullins created this reconstruction using the victim's skull. Impossible Factual

Only one victim of crucifixion has ever been identified in Roman Britain: The man’s skeleton—with a two-inch nail driven through its heel bone—was discovered during a dig in Cambridgeshire in 2017. Now, researchers have released a facial reconstruction showing what he may have looked like 2,000 years ago.

As Joe Mullins, a forensic scientist at Virginia’s George Mason University, says in the new BBC Four documentary The Cambridgeshire Crucifixion, “I am staring at a face from thousands of years ago, and staring at this face is something I will never forget.”

Mullins’ work usually involves working with law enforcement to reconstruct the faces of modern-day crime victims, according to a statement from George Mason. As he tells BBC News’ Katy Prickett, the ancient victim possesses “by far the most interesting skull I’ve worked on in my career.”

Heel Bone and Nail
A two-inch nail was found lodged in the skeleton's heel bone. Albion Archaeology

The skeleton was unearthed at a Roman settlement in the village of Fenstanton. The site contained five cemeteries dating to between the third and fourth centuries C.E. While researchers unearthed 40 adults and 5 children buried there, the remains of one man stood out: A long nail could be seen stuck through the heel, and the legs showed signs of infection or inflammation, possibly from being bound and shackled.

In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was a “cruel, ancient method of slow punishment of both miscreants of crimes and a vast number of slaves who were crucified because of minor misdemeanors,” as the Independent’s Jane Dalton puts it. Sufferers were hung from wooden crosses, their limbs either tied with rope or nailed to the structure. Constantine I abolished the punishment in the fourth century, either in honor of Christ or in acknowledgment of the practice’s inhumanity.

Previously, evidence of Roman crucifixion had only been found in Israel, as Corinne Duhig, an osteologist at Cambridge University, tells BBC News.

“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,” she said in a 2021 statement from the university. “This shows that the inhabitants of even this small settlement at the edge of [the] empire could not avoid Rome’s most barbaric punishment.”

Full Skeleton
The victim's skeleton was found buried in a cemetery within a Roman settlement in England. Albion Archaeology / Adam Williams

Since the discovery, researchers have been conducting additional analyses to learn more about the victim’s identity. Radiocarbon dating indicates he died between 130 and 360 C.E., and he was likely in his mid-30s. The reasons for his violent death are unclear, though he appears to have been given a normal burial. DNA tests suggest he may have had brown hair and brown eyes.

Mullins’ resulting facial reconstruction depicts a bearded man with dark, sunken eyes. As Duhig tells BBC News, the visual helps humanize an individual who lived in a time so far from our own.

“This man had such a particularly awful end,” she says, “that it feels as though by seeing his face, you can give more respect to him.”

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