Roman crucifixion burial found in Fenstanton

Crucified skeleton found in burial site.

Crucified skeleton found in burial site. - Credit: Albion Archaeology & Adam Williams

A crucified skeleton has been discovered at a Roman roadside settlement while carrying out an excavation in Fenstanton in 2017 on behalf of Tilia Homes (previously called Kier Living) Albion Archaeology has reported.

The said finding Roman burials on such a site is common and this was no exception however one of the people buried at Fenstanton had been crucified. 

Fenstanton lies on the Via Devana, the road which linked the Roman towns at Cambridge and Godmanchester.  

While numerous Iron Age sites are known in the area, this roadside settlement appears to have been an essentially new Roman venture on the line of the road, covering at least 6 hectares and possibly situated at a crossroads.  

Nail found in heel in Roman crucifixion 

Nail found in heel in Roman crucifixion - Credit: Albion Archaeology & Adam Williams

The presence of an early Anglo-Saxon grubenhaus or sunken-floored building points to some level of continued post-Roman habitation after the 4th century. crucified. 

Support from Tilia Homes meant that the central, best-preserved part of the settlement was left undisturbed by the new housing development.  

The excavation focused on the enclosures around the edge, away from the domestic areas – though the footings of a large wooden building and traces of stone street or yard surfaces were found in the areas closest to the centre.

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One of these enclosures contained large numbers of animal bones that suggest the presence of a large-scale industrial operation.

Cattle bones were being split in such a way that large amounts of marrow and grease would have been released – for the manufacture of items such as soap or tallow for candles.

The bones are likely to have come from a combination of cattle that were kept at Fenstanton, as well as carcasses that were imported from a nearby Roman town specifically for specialist butchers to process them here. 

The excavation also revealed a number of Roman graves, mostly clustered into small cemeteries – the size of household cemetery plots, though DNA evidence identified surprisingly few family groupings.

Analysis of the skeletons has revealed that the mostly adult population suffered from a large number of injuries and illnesses.

None of the graves appeared remarkable during excavation – but while one of the skeletons was being washed back at the lab, it was found to have a nail through its heel.  

The skeleton was that of a man aged roughly 25–35, with signs of poor dental health and arthritis that were common among many of the people buried here.

There were also signs of thinning on his lower legs, which may have been caused by infection or inflammation or perhaps by local irritation from being bound or shackled. 

Twelve nails that were found 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 – making it 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. 

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. 

A detailed article on the excavation can be found in the British Archaeology magazine at https://www.archaeologyuk.org/resource/free-access-to-crucifixion-in-the-fens-life-and-death-in-roman-fenstanton.html