First example of Roman crucifixion in UK found in Cambridgeshire village
Archaeologists investigating a previously unknown Roman roadside settlement in a Cambridgeshire village have discovered evidence of the first example of a Roman crucifixion in the UK.
The remarkable discovery was made during archaeological excavations carried out ahead of a new housing development in Fenstanton, situated between Cambridge and Huntingdon.
The site includes five small cemeteries dating from the third to fourth centuries AD and the team discovered the remains of a man with a nail through his heel in one grave.
Only one previous example like this of crucifixion has been found worldwide, in Israel, although two possible instances have also been claimed in Italy and Egypt. However, the Fenstanton example is the best preserved.
Corinne Duhig, an osteologist or human bone specialist from Wolfson College, Cambridge, said: “The lucky combination of good preservation and the nail being left in the bone has allowed me to examine this almost unique example when so many thousands have been lost. This shows that the inhabitants of even this small settlement at the edge of the empire could not avoid Rome’s most barbaric punishment.”
The grave of the man who was crucified was discovered during excavations in advance of a new housing development by Tilia Homes (previously known as Kier Living) south of Cambridge Road. The excavation was led by David Ingham of Albion Archaeology.
Inside the cemeteries, 40 adults and five children were buried. An ancient DNA study of the skeletons identified only two family groups.
A man and woman buried next to each other in one cemetery had a first-degree relationship – either as mother-son or as siblings – while two men in adjacent graves in another cemetery were second-degree relatives. The skeleton of the man with the iron nail through his heel showed he had suffered before he died, while his legs had signs of infection or inflammation caused by either a systemic disorder or by local irritation such as binding or shackles.
Although crucifixion was common in the Roman world, osteological evidence is rarely found because nails were not always used and bodies might not appear in formal burial settings. Unlike in the example of the crucifixion of Jesus, victims or prisoners were more commonly tied by the arms to the crossbar of a T-shaped frame called a ‘patibulum’ and their legs braced and tied, sometimes nailed, to the upright post.
The cruel form of punishment was eventually abolished by Constantine I in the 4th century.
Archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec, of the county council’s historic environment team, said: “These cemeteries and the settlement that developed along the Roman road at Fenstanton are breaking new ground in archaeological research. Burial practices are many and varied in the Roman period and evidence of ante-or post-mortem mutilation is occasionally seen, but never crucifixion. Hopefully, there will be a museum exhibit to showcase the remains soon.”
In 2017, Albion Archaeology carried out excavations that found enamelled brooches, coins, pottery and animal bones displaying butchery methods. These, along with a large building and formal yard or road surfaces, indicated an organised Roman settlement with signs of trade and wealth. This might have been a stopping place along the road to service travellers.
around which the village grew, and there is some evidence to suggest that it developed at a crossroads.
Overall, the population had signs of poor body health, terrible dental disease and some showed signs of malaria. Evidence of physical trauma including fractures was also seen in most of the bodies.
One particular skeleton of a man had been laid out in his grave like all the rest. However, a large iron nail penetrated the right heel bone (calcaneum) horizontally, exiting below the protrusion called the sustentaculum tali.
This was part of a cruel, ancient method of slow punishment of both miscreants of shameful crimes and a vast number of slaves who were crucified because of minor misdemeanours. This form of punishment was eventually abolished by Constantine I in the 4th Century AD.
Corinne has researched the evidence of crucifixion from this period around the world, finding only three other examples: one from La Larda in Gavello, Italy, one from Mendes in Egypt and one from a burial found at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem, found during building work in 1968.
Only the last one is a convincing example of crucifixion, she said, because the right heel bone retained a nail which was in exactly the same position as that from the Fenstanton burial. It was usual practice to remove any nails after crucifixion for re-use, discard or use as amulets, but in this case the nail had bent and become fixed in the bone.
Picture credits: Aerial photographs (c) JJ Mac Ltd; all other images (c) Albion Archaeology.