How Jesus died: Archaeologist Found rare evidence of Roman crucifixion uncovered in Italy

How Jesus died: Archaeologist Found rare evidence of Roman crucifixion uncovered in Italy
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The body of a man buried in northern Italy 2,000 years ago shows signs that he died after being nailed to a wooden cross, the technique used for the execution of Jesus described in the Christian Bible.

In spite of the fact crucifixion was a common form of capital punishment for criminals and slaves in ancient Roman times, the new finding is only the 2nd time that direct archaeological evidence of it has been found.

Although broadly attested to in historical writings — including the New Testament — it is only the 2nd known archaeological proof of the particularly cruel form of capital punishment practiced by the Romans against criminals, as well as revolutionaries such as Jesus.

The findings — published in the April 2018 edition of the peer reviewed journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences under the title “A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?” — are based on a new analysis of a skeleton that was discovered in 2007 during a salvage excavation of an isolated tomb.

“In the particular case, despite the poorly preserved conditions, we could demonstrate the presence of signs on the skeleton that demonstrate a violence similar to crucifixion,” co-author Emanuela Gualdi from the University of Ferrara told the Italian-language paper Estense.

“The importance of the discovery lies in the fact that it is the 2nd case documented in the world,” co-author Ursula Thun Hohenstein told Estense.

“In spite of the fact that this brutal type of execution has been perfected and practiced for a long time by the Romans, the troubles in preserving damaged bones and, subsequently, in interpreting traumas, hinder the recognition of crucifixion victims, making this testimony considerably more precious,” Thun Hohenstein said.

The only previously found archaeological evidence comes from a 1968 Jerusalem excavation performed by Vassilios Tzaferis of tombs from a massive Second Temple Jewish cemetery (2nd century BCE to 70 CE) in the Giv’at HaMivtar neighborhood.

Inside a typical rock hewn tomb of the era, Tzaferis found, among other items, several bone receptacles. Inside one ossuary lay the bones from two generations of males, one 20-24-year-old, and the other a mere 3 or 4.

Proof of crucifixion: The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan, discovered in Jerusalem in 1968.
Proof of crucifixion: The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan, discovered in Jerusalem in 1968.

On the heel bone of the older male was discerned an 18 cm [7-inch] nail, upon which was found some 1-2 cm of olive wood — remnants of the cross from which he was hung, scientists concluded. Upon publication, the world heralded this unique proof of the historicity of crucifixion.

According to a 1985 Biblical Archaeology Review article composed by Tzaferis titled, “Crucifixion — The Archaeological Proof,” the Romans were not the creative force behind this painfully punishing form of death.

“Many individuals erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, Assyrians, Phoenicians, and Persians all practiced crucifixion amid the first millennium BCE,” wrote Tzaferis.

These newly investigated Italian remains of the 30- to 34-year-old crucified male are not as entirely unambiguous, but. Their interpretation is complicated by the poor preservation of the bone surfaces.

Radiocarbon dating was not possible, however the remains were dated to the Roman era due to their context: archaeologists found fragments of typical Roman bricks and tiles.

Image of the skeleton found in northern Italy, which may be the second known evidence of crucifixion.
Image of the skeleton found in northern Italy, which may be the second known evidence of crucifixion.

According to the authors, the skeleton was uncovered amid a 2006-2007 infrastructure operation in northern Italy’s Gavello municipality, found about 60 km from Venice in the Po Valley.

The People was discovered lying on his back, “with the upper limbs next at his side and the lower limbs outstretched.” It was, strangely for the time period, buried directly in the ground and without grave goods.

Upon closer examination of the bones, scientists noted “particular lesions” on the right heel.

“To better understand the trauma, we analyzed this bone in detail to determine the time of occurrence and to give an interpretation,” they write.

The interdisciplinary team decided to use anthropological and genetic strategies to create a “biological profile of the individual.”

Through studying the bones and archaeological data, including the skeleton’s burial context, the scientists believe they were able to more deeply understand the “social role of the victim and the violence pattern in past populations.”

“The results provide proof of a possible brutal mode of death,” they write.

On the trail of an execution

At first, the skeleton was given to the University of Ferrara for anthropological investigations, write the researchers. Later, at the University of Siena, 3D pictures of the hole in the heel were generated with a sophisticated hi-tech digital microscope.

Additionally, at the University of Florence’s Molecular Anthropology laboratory, exclusively dedicated to ancient DNA examination, 3 pieces from the vertebrae were chosen for genetic analysis.

Proof of a potential crucifixion is found only on the right heel. The researchers write that they observed a lesion they went through the “entire width” of the heel bone, penetrating under a horizontal shelf like portion in the mid-back section of the heel.

“The perforation (length 24 mm) demonstrates a regular round hole passing from the medial side (diameter 9 mm) to the lateral one (diameter 6.5 mm).

The pattern of the cross sectional lesion is linear in the first part, turning slightly downward in the last part,” they write.

Christ of Saint John of the Cross,’ by Salvador Dalí, 1951
Christ of Saint John of the Cross,’ by Salvador Dalí, 1951

“The presence of an ellipsoidal depressed fracture on the medial side, however not on the lateral, suggests that the injury was inflicted post-mortem and the blow was inflicted from medial to lateral, causing a breakthrough in the impact area (entry point),” they conclude.

In other words, the foot sole area was potentially nailed to a hard surface prior to the death of the victim.

The authors are the first to admit that on the face of it, the discoveries are not entirely conclusive. With only one other example of crucifixion for comparison, it is hard to understand what are normative practices.

“The position, section, and direction of the perforation are only partly consistent with the other case of crucifixion described previously.

We observed a circular hole in the Gavello calcaneus unlike that from Giv’at HaMivtar in which a nail with a square section was utilized. Although the latter type of nail was more frequent in Roman times, nails with a circular section were also utilized, as reported in the literature,” they write.

The specialists hypothesize that “the upper limbs were fixed to the cross by nails through the wrist, as per ancient historical sources.” However, here again, the paucity of Evidence means the arms could just as easily have been tied to the cross, as is thought to possibly be the case in the Jerusalem example.

The Jerusalem ossuary was found to contain a second skeleton, that of a young child.
The Jerusalem ossuary was found to contain a second skeleton, that of a young child.

Social reject?

Based on the archaeological and anthropological information, the researchers also draw potential conclusions about the victim. They note that in the Roman world, crucifixion was historically meted out to marginalized populations: slaves (even after their freedom), revolutionaries, foreigners, criminals, and other non Roman citizens, with the exception of soldiers who deserted.

“The irregular burial context, lack of grave goods, short adult stature and possible proof of torture (Martin and Harrod 2015) suggest a condition of captivity or slavery for the Gavello individual,” they write.

The lone, sole burial, in particular, gave the researchers pause.

“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,” they write.

“This sort of execution,” co-author Thun Hohenstein told Estense, “was generally reserved for slaves. The same topographical marginalization of the burial induces us to think that it was an individual considered dangerous and neglected by the society in which he lived that he was rejected by it even after death.”


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.