Cambridge team uncovers possibly world’s best preserved evidence of Roman era crucifixion


A UK team from the University of Cambridge has found a skeleton thought to be a slave who was crucified at a Roman settlement in the area. The find is thought to be the only example of crucifixion in the UK – and potentially the world’s best-preserved example of Roman crucifixion.

Archaeologists that included osteoarchaeologist Dr Corinne Duhig were working on the site of a former Roman settlement in Cambridgeshire, prior to a new housing development being built in Fenstanton, when they made the find. The site is a former milk-bottling plant in the village. An excavation in 2017 revealed five small Roman cemeteries containing the graves of 40 adults and five children, dating mainly from fourth century AD.

The team has now recently analysed the remains and found a male skeleton with a 5cm iron nail horizontally through his right heel bone. The skeleton was laid out exactly as the others in his grave – most of the skeletons revealed dental disease, malaria and physical injury, such as fractures.

The male skeleton with the nail through his heel bone is now known as Skeleton 4926 – archaeologists say he was aged between 25 and 35 and was around 5 foot 7 inches in height, which was the average height at the time. Radiocarbon dating techniques indicate he died between 130 AD and 360 AD. It is also known that he suffered trauma to his legs before death and is likely to have been shackled.

Possibly the world’s best example of Roman era crucifixion

The team says that the thirteenth nail which penetrates the heel was discovered in the laboratory 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’,” said the team.

Crucifixion took place during Roman times – as in the story of the death of Jesus Christ and the two thieves, Gestas and Dismas, crucified alongside him. Whereas Jesus was nailed to the cross, however, the thieves were tied to their crosses. Jesus was convicted by the Roman state of treason, alongside Barabbas. The punishment for treason was death by crucifixion. Nails used for crucifixion were sometimes saved as lucky amulets after the death. There is a healthy trade in crucifixion nails and other amulets online. Emperor Constantine banned crucifixion for Roman citizens in the Edict of 337 AD, but it was still possible for slaves to be crucified. Constantine converted to Christianity in 337 AD on his deathbed and introduced it across the Roman empire

Master of the Saint Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece
by Hans von Tubingen (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“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, who is a Director of Studies in Archaeology at two Cambridge colleges, Wolfson and Lucy Cavendish.

You can read more about the find on the University of Cambridge website.

Featured image by Albion Archaeology.

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