Some 1,900 years ago, a guy in Roman Britain had a very bad day. Archeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a man in the UK with a nail bolted through his heel in what’s believed to be the first physical evidence of Roman crucifixion found in Europe.
The unfortunate body was discovered by Albion Archeology near the site of Via Devana, a Roman settlement in Cambridgeshire on the road linking the Roman towns at Cambridge and Godmanchester. The details of the find were reported in British Archaeology magazine on Wednesday.
The recent excavations revealed a number of Roman-era graves clustered into small cemeteries, although DNA evidence identified surprisingly few families among the bodies. The team was particularly drawn to one individual that was found to have a nail through their right heel bone (calcaneum).
The discovery of 12 nails around the skeleton further suggests that he had been forcibly attached to a wooden structure in a crucifixion. While this was a common form of capital punishment in this time – you may remember it supposedly happened to a notable historical figure from the Roman era – people were often just tied to the cross, not nailed.
Previous to this discovery, archeologists have only discovered one other example of a crucifixion nail found in situ through the bone, discovered in north Jerusalem in 1968. Two bodies have been found in Italy and Egypt with highly suspicious holes in their heels, but no direct evidence of a nail.
“While this cannot be taken as incontrovertible proof that the man was crucified, it seems the only plausible explanation – making it at most the fourth example ever recorded worldwide through archaeological evidence,” Albion Archeology said in a statement.
This man almost certainly died an unpleasant death, but it doesn’t look like his living days were much better. The skeleton belonged to a male who died at some point between the ages of 25 and 35 – despite his relatively young age, he was suffering from bad dental health and arthritis at the time of his death. His legs were also surprisingly skinny. This is most likely because of an illness, or perhaps due to his legs withering around after being shackled for a long period, hinting he may have been a slave.
Unusually, however, the body was not just abandoned. For unknown reasons, it appears this person was condemned to death, but then carefully given a formal burial alongside other people, which is not typical of this type of death.
“The remarkable fact about this skeleton is not that the man was crucified, but that his body was reclaimed after death and given a formal burial alongside others, leaving us with this extremely rare evidence of what had happened to him,” added Albion Archeology.