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Rare crucifixion victim found in Cambridgeshire

17 December 2021

Dates match persecution of Christians by Rome

Albion Archaeology

The victim’s heel bone, with the nail through it (Click on picture to see more images)

The victim’s heel bone, with the nail through it (Click on picture to see more images)

THE only Roman-era crucifixion victim found outside the Holy Land has been discovered in Britain.

Radiocarbon-dating tests suggest that the victim, found in Cambridgeshire, was executed in the third or early fourth century AD, probably in about 250. This would coincide with the empire-wide persecution under Decius, during which thousands of Christians are thought to have been executed.

An archaeological investigation company, Albion Archaeology, found the crucifixion victim in what had been a Roman roadside settlement at Fenstanton, 13 miles north-west of Cambridge. Aged between 25 and 35, he was probably a slave, perhaps working in the manufacture of soap, candles, or cosmetics, which appears to have been an industry in the settlement. His right foot contains the nail, hammered in horizontally through the back of his ankle and his heel.

Contrary to public perception, crucifixion was relatively rare as a method of execution in Roman times. This is only the second confirmed example of a Roman-era crucifixion. The first was found in Israel in 1968.

Albion ArchaeologyThe complete skeleton of the crucifixion victim

One of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, Professor John Granger Cook, of LaGrange College, Georgia, puts the annual number of crucifixions between 200 BC and their virtual abolition in AD 337 as perhaps 100 a year on average. At its peak, the Roman empire contained more than 70 million citizens and slaves.

Archaeological evidence shows that, in normal times, most death sentences were carried out in other ways: by lethal sword blows, through decapitation, burning, or feeding to wild animals. The number of crucifixions increased very substantially, however, in times of crisis or perceived political defiance.

In Britain, it is thought that this period of persecution, first under Decius, then, in 253, under Valerian, led to the execution of four early British martyrs: St Alban, St Julius, St Aaron, and, according to non-contemporary accounts, possibly a priest, later named as St Amphibalus. Since all were free men (i.e. not of slave status), they would have been executed by means other than crucifixion.

The Cambridgeshire crucifixion victim had lost three-quarters of his back teeth during his short life, had two tooth abscesses, and suffered from degenerative arthritis in his back. An examination of his bones suggests that, like many of the other 47 individuals found buried at Fenstanton, he had run into trouble with the Roman authorities some time before his crucifixion, judging by earlier fractures.

In addition, his left ankle, lower leg, and right shin display abnormal bone growth, probably caused by rope bonds or metal shackles.

Evidence from his grave suggests that his corpse may have been left hanging on the cross for some time before he was buried. Very unusually, he seems to have been interred on a makeshift bier rather than in a coffin or shroud. After a time, a bier of some sort would have been required to carry his decomposing corpse from his place of execution to his grave.

Next to him is the only other individual in the cemetery to have been interred on a bier. It is speculated that this woman, aged 35-45, had also been crucified, but attached to the cross with ropes, not nails. Both methods are known to have been used by the Romans. In both procedures, the victim would have died of asphyxiation.

At present, there is no evidence to prove that either victim was a Christian martyr. But the classical historian Professor Roger Rees, of the University of St Andrews, says that radiocarbon-dating “clearly raises the possibility that he may have been executed in one of the anti-Christian persecutions of that era”.

The detailed examination of the Fenstanton skeletons was carried out by the osteo-archaeologist Dr Corinne Duhig, of Wolfson College, Cambridge. The excavation was directed by David Ingham.

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