Giv’at ha-Mivtar (Israel): Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World

Kristina Killgrove

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Crucifixion zias needpermissionRight: The calcaneus of Yehohanon ben Hagkol, with transfixed nail. Left: A reconstruction of what the foot may have looked like around the time of death. (Image used with kind permission of Joe Zias.)

The Romans practiced crucifixion – literally, “fixed to a cross” – for nearly a millennium. It was a public, painful, and slow form of execution, and used as a way to deter future crimes and humiliate the dying person. Since it was done to thousands of people and involved nails, you’d probably assume we have skeletal evidence of crucifixion.  But there’s only one, single bony example of Roman crucifixion, and even that is still heavily debated by experts.

Crucifixion seems to have originated in Persia, but the Romans created the practice as we think of it today, employing either a crux immissa (similar to the Christian cross) or a crux commissa (a T-shaped cross) made up of an upright post and a crossbar.  Generally, the upright post was erected first, and the victim was tied or nailed to the crossbar and then hoisted up.  There was usually an inscription nailed above the victim, noting his particular crime, and sometimes victims got a wooden support to sit or stand on. But Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote in 40AD that the process of crucifying someone varied greatly: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in different ways: some have their victims with their head down to the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms.”

When nails were involved, they were long and square (about 15cm long and 1cm thick) and were driven into the victim’s wrists or forearms to fix him to the crossbar.  Once the crossbar was in place, the feet may be nailed to either side of the upright or crossed.  In the first case, nails would have been driven through the heel bones, and in the second case, one nail would have been hammered through the metatarsals in the middle of the foot.  To hasten death, the victim sometimes had his legs broken (crurifragium); the resulting compound fracture of the shin bones may have resulted in hemorrhage and fat embolisms, not to mention significant pain, causing earlier death.

Like death by guillotine in early modern times, crucifixion was a public act, but unlike the swift action of the guillotine, crucifixion involved a long and painful – literally, excruciating – death. The Roman orator Cicero noted that “of all punishments, it is the most cruel and most terrifying,” and Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.”  So crucifixion was both a deterrent of further crimes and a humiliation of the dying person, who had to spend the last days of his life naked, in full view of any passersby, until he died of dehydration, asphyxiation, infection, or other causes.

Since the Romans crucified people from at least the 3rd century BC until the emperor Constantine banned the practice in 337 AD out of respect for Jesus and the cross’s potent symbolism for Christianity, it would follow that archaeological evidence of crucifixion would have been found all over the Empire .  And yet only one bioarchaeological example of crucifixion has ever been found.

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated some tombs in the northeastern section of Jerusalem, at a site called Giv’at ha-Mivtar.  Within this rather wealthy 1st century AD Jewish tomb, Tzaferis came across the remains of a man who seemed to have been crucified.  His name, according to the inscription on the ossuary, was Yehohanan ben Hagkol.  Analysis of the bones by osteologist Nicu Haas showed that Yehohanan was about 24 to 28 years old at the time of his death.  He stood roughly 167cm tall, the average for men of this period.  His skeleton points to moderate muscular activity, but there was no indication that he was engaged in manual labor.

YehohanonDrawing of the calcaneus of Yehohanon along with a reconstruction of the fleshed and defleshed foot skeleton. (Public domain image by S. Rubén Betanzo via wikimedia commons.)

Of course, the most interesting feature of Yehohanan’s skeleton is his feet.  Immediately upon excavation, Tzaferis noticed a 19cm nail that had penetrated the body of the right heel bone before being driven into olive wood so hard that it bent.  Because of the impossibility of removing the nail and because the man was buried rather than exposed, we have direct evidence of the practice of crucifixion.

This much is generally agreed upon. Where researchers disagree – pretty significantly – is in the method of crucifixion of Yehohanan.

At the time the bone was discovered, Haas thought that the two heel bones were crossed and fixed by an iron nail. After the bones were conserved, however, Haas noticed new evidence and suggested instead that the feet were next to one another, and one nail was driven into both heels. He also saw fractures to the legs made around the time of death that he interpreted as evidence of crurifragium as well as a small scratch near the wrist that was suggestive of a nail being driven through the hand.

A reanalysis of the skeleton, though, by researchers Joe Zias and Eliezer Sekeles in the 1980s took issue with this interpretation. They found that the nail was too short to have penetrated both heel bones and they were unconvinced that the scratch on the wrist bone was related to traumatic injury. More importantly, they showed that the bones were too degraded to conclusively show crurifragium.

The debate about Yehohanan’s death will likely remain at this stalemate, as the bone material from the Giv’at ha-Mivtar ossuary was reburied after the studies by Haas and by Zias & Sekeles were completed in the mid 1980s.  Unless more bone material is found in the future, this is the sole known evidence of crucifixion from an archaeological excavation.

It’s not likely that a lot of evidence will be found, though, for a number of reasons:

  • Wooden crosses don’t survive, as they degraded long ago or were re-used.

  • Victims of crucifixion were usually criminals and therefore not formally buried, just exposed or thrown into a river or trash heap. It’s difficult to identify these bodies, and scavenging animals would have done further damage to the bones.

  • Crucifixion nails were believed to have magical or medicinal properties, so they were often taken from a victim. Without a nail in place, it becomes more difficult to tell crucifixion from animal scavengers’ puncture marks.

  • For the most part, crucifixion involved soft tissue injuries that can’t be seen on bone. Only if a person had nails driven through his bones or was subject to crurifragium would there be significant bony evidence of the practice.

In the first century BC, during the revolt of Spartacus, there were reports of over 6,000 crosses with crucified victims on the road from Capua to Rome, and in the first century AD, the Romano-Jewish scholar Josephus reported that up to 500 Jews were crucified every day during the siege of Jerusalem.

The bioarchaeology of crucifixion is therefore a bit of a conundrum: it makes sense that finding evidence may be difficult because of the ravages of time on bones and wooden crosses, but the sheer volume of people killed in this way over centuries should have given us more direct evidence of the practice.

A lot of rather random chance is involved in the creation of the archaeological record – from weather conditions to cultural customs to rodent activity.  Even though there are problems involved in the preservation of evidence of crucifixion, the case of Yehohanan ben Hagkol shows that skeletal evidence might some day give us more information about the practice.