First example of Roman crucifixion in the UK unearthed in Cambridgeshire

The remains of a man with a nail through his heel were discovered ahead of building work for a new housing development.

Sam Russell
Wednesday 08 December 2021 14:19
The find is the first example of crucifixion in the UK (Albion Archaeology/PA)
The find is the first example of crucifixion in the UK (Albion Archaeology/PA)

The first example of a Roman crucifixion in the UK has been unearthed in a Cambridgeshire village.

The skeletal remains of a man with a nail through his heel were discovered during archaeological excavations ahead of building work for a new housing development in Fenstanton.

Only one other previous example like this of crucifixion has been found worldwide, in Israel, though two possible instances have been claimed in Italy and Egypt archaeologists said.

Human bone specialist Corinne Duhig, of Cambridge University’s Wolfson College, described the example as “almost unique” due to its “good preservation” and the nail remaining in the bone.

The grave of the skeleton of a crucified man in Fenstanton, Cambridgshire. (Albion Archaeology/ PA)

She said: “This shows that the inhabitants of even this small settlement at the edge of empire could not avoid Rome’s most barbaric punishment.”

The grave of the crucified man was discovered as part of an excavation in 2017 in Fenstanton, a historic roadside village whose High Street follows the route of Roman road the Via Devana which linked the towns of Cambridge and Godmanchester.

Archaeologists found five small cemeteries where 40 adults and five children were buried.

The skeleton of the crucified man revealed other injuries and abnormalities that indicated he had suffered before he died.

His legs had signs of infection or inflammation caused by either a systemic disorder or by local irritation such as binding or shackles.

The nail in the heel of the skeleton of the crucified man. (Albion Archaeology/ PA)

Although crucifixion was common in the Roman world, human bone evidence for the practice is unlikely to be found because nails were not always used and bodies might not appear in formal burial settings.

Unlike the most famous Christian example of the crucifixion of Jesus, who was unusually nailed by his hands and feet to a cross, victims or prisoners were more commonly tied by the arms to the crossbar of a T-shaped frame called a patibulum and their legs braced and tied, sometimes nailed, to either side of the upright post.

This was part of a cruel, ancient method of slow punishment of both miscreants of shameful crimes and a vast number of slaves who were crucified because of minor misdemeanours.

This form of punishment was eventually abolished by Constantine I in the 4th-century AD.

Dr Duhig has researched the evidence of crucifixion from this period around the world, finding only three other examples: one from La Larda in Gavello, Italy, one from Mendes in Egypt and one from a burial found at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem, found during building work in 1968.

Only the last one is a convincing example of crucifixion, she said, because the right heel bone retained a nail which was in exactly the same position as that from the Fenstanton burial.

An aerial photograph of the excavation site in Fenstanton. (JJ Mac Ltd/ PA)

It was usual practice to remove any nails after crucifixion for re-use, discard or use as amulets, but in this case the nail had bent and become fixed in the bone.

The results of the Fenstanton excavation will be formally published when analysis of the site’s finds and evidence has been completed.

Archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec, speaking for Cambridgeshire County Council’s historic environment team, said: “These cemeteries and the settlement that developed along the Roman road at Fenstanton are breaking new ground in archaeological research.

“Burial practices are many and varied in the Roman period and evidence of ante- or post-mortem mutilation is occasionally seen, but never crucifixion.

“We look forward to finding out more when the results are published.

“Hopefully, there will be a museum exhibit to showcase the remains soon and we are working to arrange this.

“We are grateful to the developer for funding these important investigations as part of their planning obligation.”

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