Found at the site of a future housing development in Cambridgeshire, the near 1,900-year-old skeleton at first did not seem particularly remarkable.
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.
But once his remains were removed to a laboratory in Bedford, a grisly discovery was made – a nail through the heel bone that experts now say is the best physical evidence of a crucifixion in the Roman world.
Nails used for crucifixion – the method of capital punishment by which the victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang until death – are a rare find, most likely because the victims would not often have received proper burial and, contrary to popular views, it was commonly carried out using rope.
But after prolonged analysis crucifixion was established as the only likely explanation, and the first details of the extraordinary find are reported on Wednesday in British Archaeology magazine.
On a wet, dull day in November 2017, the skeleton was uncovered and recorded in situ without the nail being noticed, as it was protruding only a couple of centimetres either side of the heel and was caked in mud.
It was not until the bones were bagged and removed to the lab, where they were cleaned, that the nail was revealed.
David Ingham, project manager at Albion Archaeology, which conducted the dig, said: “Well it’s the first time a skeleton has been excavated archaeologically that anyone has found a nail in, so it’s not the sort of thing you’re looking for.”
He went on: “We know a reasonable amount about crucifixion; how it was practised and where it was practised and when and so on from historical accounts. But it’s the first tangible evidence to actually see how it worked.”
The off-site analysis was conducted by Corinne Duhig, a renowned archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, who came to the conclusion that crucifixion was the reason the nail was used.
The find is more remarkable because it is highly unusual for the body of a crucifixion victim to be reclaimed, brought back to a settlement and buried alongside others.
The reasons behind this, the crucifixion and the identity of the man will never be known, but Romans are thought to have reserved crucifixion for condemned slaves, rebels and lower classes.
The Fenstanton man was found with an iron nail in his right heel bone, the calcaneum, which would have been inserted into the sides of an upright timber. And, while the location of crucifixion is unknown, it is likely to have been elsewhere, possibly by the side of the road.
The find is the only instance of physical evidence of crucifixion in northern Europe and the fourth reported worldwide, two of which had no nails associated with them.
A heel bone with a nail in the same position as the new find was accidentally found by builders in Israel in 1968 and was less well preserved and subject to some controversy.
The Fenstanton man’s bones have been radiocarbon dated to between AD130 and AD360, making them between 1,661 and 1,891 years old. DNA analysis shows 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.
Ingham hopes a 3D replica of the heel bone with the nail embedded will be displayed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
Other finds in the settlement include unusual evidence for industrial processing of cattle bones, perhaps for cosmetics and soap.
The dig took place between May and November 2017. The findings were set to be revealed in 2020 but this was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.