Last week a rather interesting bit of news caught my eye relating to an archeological dig from 2017 but for reasons relating to Covid, the findings which have only just been released.
As I’ve mentioned previously from time to time, it is common practice for archaeological work to be carried out in the UK before construction projects begin, even if they are in locations where buildings previously have sat for decades or indeed hundreds of years.
Last week though, a dig in a country field that was and indeed has become a small housing area brought about unexpected and quite unpleasant news when a number of skeletons were uncovered. This of course is relatively normal but one 1,900 year old skeleton was anything but normal.
Aged 25 to 35 at the time of death, the man had been buried with his arms across his chest in a grave with a wooden structure, possibly a bier, at one of five cemeteries around a newly discovered Roman settlement at Fenstanton, between Roman Cambridge and Godmanchester.
It quickly became evident however that archaeologists had found the “best physical evidence for a crucifixion in the Roman world” in a field in Fenstanton.
The remains of a man, who had a 5cm iron nail embedded in his right heel bone, were discovered in an ancient grave in the village of Fenstanton alongside a wooden board he is thought to have been pinned to.
He is believed to be aged between 25 and 35, and his emaciated skeleton suggests he was most likely a Roman slave who was routinely punished by his master.
The 5’7″ tall body was uncovered by a team of professional excavators in 2017, who were analysing the site ahead of a housing development being built. The man died between AD 130 and AD 337, according to radiocarbon dating.
It is the first example of a Roman crucifixion in the UK, and one of only four similar cases around the world, two of which had no nails present and the other discovered in Israel in the 1960’s was deemed contentious.
It is thought likely the man was crucified on a roadside half a mile away from the small cemetery in Fenstanton where he was buried.
Crucifixion was the main form of capital punishment in Roman times. Constantine the Great banned the practice during his reign in AD 306-337.
Romans reserved crucifixion for condemned slaves, rebels and lower classes. It was designed to prolong an agonising death, and to serve as a warning to others.
Suffocation was the usual cause of death, as the unnatural position of the arms being pinned above the head meant the condemned person couldn’t take enough air into the lungs.
Despite the link between crucifixion and Christianity, experts believe there was no religious element in this case.
It is highly unusual for a victim of crucifixion to be buried, as they are usually left in the open area or thrown into a pit.
It is also very rare to recover the nails used to pin the person to the wooden frame, as they were often recovered following death due to their value in Roman times as a metal. Most crucifixions were also carried out using rope.
Biblical texts refer to crucifixion taking place with wooden crosses, but using a wooden board instead is thought to be a local variation in this case.
DNA analysis of the bones indicate that he was not genetically related to any of the other bodies found on the site but was from the native population.
There is evidence that suggests the man could have been a slave – his shins were thinned, as if manacles had been worn for prolonged periods of time. However, this is inconclusive – he could have been imprisoned for other reasons.
He was among the remains of 48 bodies found at the site during the archaeological excavations, which were undertaken as a requirement for planning consent for a now-completed housing development.
No other nails were found in the man’s body, suggesting that he was tied to the wooden frame with rope and the heel bone nail was to prevent him from moving.
If things couldn’t have been any worse for the poor chap, there is also a 1cm-deep hole near where the nail was embedded in his heel, suggesting more than one attempt to pin his body to the wood before he was left to slowly die over a day or two.
Other finds in the settlement include unusual evidence for industrial processing of cattle bones, perhaps for cosmetics and soap.
A few years ago I was fortunate to be at Roman excavation site and you can read about it at Holding a nearly 2,000 year old Roman shoe at Vindolanda For rather more bones which not read Bunhill Fields – the resting place of some of the biggest names in history. If rather horrid methods of execution are your thing then check out my book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History