A 1,900-year-old skeleton found in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire is believed to be the best physical evidence that a crucifixion occurred in Britain in Roman times.
At first the skeleton, of a man aged between 25 and 35, did not seem remarkable when it was found in a newly discovered Roman site, but after the remains were examined in a laboratory in Bedford, experts discovered a nail through the heel bone they believe is the best physical evidence of a crucifixion found to date.
Nails used for crucifixion – the grisly capital punishment which kills victims by tying or nailing them to a large wooden beam and leaving the to hang until death – are rare.
It is at most the fourth example ever recorded worldwide through archaeological evidence. Crucifixion was relatively commonplace in Roman times, but the victims were often tied to the cross rather than nailed, and if nails were used then it was routine to remove them afterwards.
Only one other example has been found with a nail surviving in situ through the bone, discovered at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem during building work in 1968; skeletons with a similar hole have also been found at Gavello in Italy and at Mendes in Egypt, but without a nail in place and with doubt over how the holes had been formed.
Experts from Albion Archaeology found twelve nails around the skeleton suggest that he had been placed on a board or a bier (probably not in a coffin), but the 13th had passed horizontally through his right heel bone (calcaneum).
It seems implausible that the nail could have been accidentally driven through the bone during construction of the timber support on which the body was placed – indeed, there are even signs of a shallow second hole that suggests an unsuccessful first attempt to pierce the bone.
While this cannot be taken as incontrovertible proof that the man was crucified, it seems the only plausible explanation. Other items found on site included copper brooches, with one cut in the shape of a horse, pottery.