Crucifixion is certainly one of the worst ways to die. Judging by historical records, tens of thousands of people across the ancient world were executed using this method (including one particularly famous guy, apparently). However, archaeological evidence of this cruel and unusual punishment is almost unheard of.
Archaeologists have now unearthed the second ever piece of physical evidence of crucifixion. During the laying of a pipeline in Gavello, northern Italy, workers discovered the skeleton of an ancient Roman man in an isolated grave, as reported in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Archaeologists headed onto the scene and noted a distinctive lesion they believe was caused by crucifixion – a coin-sized hole straight through the back of his heel.
The only other archaeological evidence of crucifixion comes from a Jerusalem burial cave at some point in this first century CE, which consisted of a skeleton’s foot with a bolt through it. These newly analyzed remains are not quite as clear-cut. The researchers say that crucifixion is the most probable cause of the injury, but there might be alternative explanations.
"The importance of the discovery lies in the fact that it is the second case documented in the world," archaeologist Ursula Thun Hohenstein from the University of Ferrara told Italian newspaper Estense.
Exact methods vary from culture to culture, but crucifixion usually involves tying or nailing a person’s limbs to a large wooden beam and leaving them to hang there. Sometimes within hours, but often within days, the victim eventually dies as a result of exhaustion and asphyxiation. It’s most often associated with the Romans, however, it was also practiced in ancient Persia, Assyria, Japan, the ancient Islamic world, and many other pockets of the globe.
It was a method of torturous death often applied to the misfits of society. In this case, the researchers believe that the man was most likely a slave in his early 30s who somehow angered his master or local community.
“The irregular burial context, lack of grave goods, short adult stature, and possible evidence of torture suggest a condition of captivity or slavery for the Gavello individual,” the study authors wrote.
“During the Roman times, the burial of individuals deemed socially dangerous or defamed (particularly executed people) also involved topographic marginalization. Isolation of the burial site, as at Gavello, may have been a consequence of the community’s refusal of the individual in death as in life.”