The first example of a Roman crucifixion in the UK has been found in a Cambridgeshire village

08 December 2021

The remarkable and historically significant discovery was made during archaeological excavations carried out ahead of a new housing development in Fenstanton, situated between Cambridge and Huntingdon.

Archaeologists investigating a previously unknown Roman roadside settlement, which includes five small cemeteries, discovered in one grave the remains of a man with a nail through his heel.

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.

The exciting discovery follows on from previous historically significant digs across Cambridgeshire in recent years which have uncovered preserved Bronze Age buildings and artefacts at Must Farm in Whittlesey, pristine prehistoric occupation sites and burial monuments in Needingworth Quarry, and new Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements that emerged during the course of the recent A14 road improvement scheme around Cambridge.

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.

Osteologist (human bone specialist) Corinne Duhig 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 empire could not avoid Rome's most barbaric punishment.”

Inside the cemeteries, 40 adults and five children were buried, with a specialist study showing that some family groups were present. The Roman graves, now fully excavated, also included a number of archaeologically significant artefacts.

The results of the excavation will be formally published when analysis of the site’s finds and evidence has been completed.

Speaking for Cambridgeshire County Council’s Historic Environment Team, archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec 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.

“We look forward to finding out more when the results are published. Hopefully, there will be a museum exhibit to showcase the remains soon, and we are working to arrange this. We are grateful to the developer for funding these important investigations as part of their planning obligation.”

Chair of the council’s Environment & Green Investment Committee Cllr Lorna Dupré said: “This is yet another remarkable discovery in Cambridgeshire, proving once again what a rich history we have to share and helping to give the county international attention.

“I can’t wait to find out what the final results of the excavation will show, and we will look to find a permanent home for them so they can be put on display and inspire people for generations to come.

“I would like to thank all involved in finding these artefacts and helping to preserve them.”

Background

Fenstanton is a quaint, historic roadside village whose High Street follows the route of the Via Devana, which linked the Roman towns of Cambridge and Godmanchester.

In 2017, Albion Archaeology carried out excavations in advance of a new housing development by Tilia Homes (previously known as Kier Living), south of Cambridge Road.

Some of the more noteworthy findings included enamelled brooches, large numbers of coins, decorated fine ware pottery and large amounts of animal bones displaying specialist butchery methods. These, along with a large building and formal yard or road surfaces, indicated the presence of an organised Roman settlement with obvious signs of trade and wealth.

This settlement might have been maintained as a formal 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.

Forty adults and five children were buried in the five small cemeteries that dated to the third to fourth centuries AD, while three isolated burials and a cremation also occurred.

Ancient DNA study of the skeletons identified only two family groups, despite this being a small rural settlement where you would expect many people to be related.

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, so could be either half-siblings, uncle-nephew or grandfather-grandson.

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.

His skeleton revealed other injuries and abnormalities that indicated 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 for the practice is unlikely to be found because nails were not always used and bodies might not appear in formal burial settings.

Unlike the most famous Christian example of the crucifixion of Jesus, who was unusually nailed by his hands and feet to a cross, 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 either side of the upright post.

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.