An ossuary at the Israel Museum contains the sole physical evidence ever found for the Roman practice of execution on the cross
The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan. (photo credit: Courtesy the Israel Museum, photographer: Ilan Shtulman)
In Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago a Jew named Yehohanan, who was in his mid-twenties, committed a crime against Roman authority. The nature of his transgression has been lost to time, but his punishment is known — he was crucified.
Convicts were executed by crucifixion in the Roman Empire as a matter of course, and histories of the time regularly describe the practice, which was designed to make death prolonged, painful and public. After the famous slave uprising led by Spartacus was crushed in 71 BCE, for example, an estimated 6,000 rebels were crucified along a highway leading to the capital as an illustration of Roman power.
It is therefore an odd fact that archaeological evidence of this punishment — crosses, for example, or perforated skeletons — has never been found anywhere in the world, with one exception: the stone box containing Yehohanan’s remains.
After Yehohanan’s body was removed from the cross, it would have been laid out in a burial cave. After the flesh had decomposed a year or so later, leaving only the skeleton, his bones were gathered in a simple stone box, an ossuary, in keeping with the Jewish practice of that time. Today, the box is displayed in a gallery at the Israel Museum alongside other artifacts from the period of Roman rule in Judea.
His name is inscribed in simple letters on one side: Yehohanan, son of Hagakol. (Some scholars, interpreting the letters differently, believe the second name is Hezkil.)
Inside the box, archaeologists found a heel bone with an iron stake driven through it, indicating that the occupant of the ossuary had been nailed to a cross.
The position of the stake was evidence of a crucifixion technique that had not previously been known, according to museum curator David Mevorah. In the image of crucifixion made famous by Christian iconography, Jesus is pictured with both feet nailed to the front of the vertical beam of the cross. But this man’s feet had been affixed to the sides of the beam with nails hammered separately through each heel.
His hands showed no sign of wounds, indicating that they had been tied, rather than nailed, to the horizontal bar.
The ossuary was found to contain a second skeleton, that of a young child. (photo credit: Courtesy the Israel Museum, photographer: Ilan Shtulman)
The surprising lack of similar physical evidence for crucifixion elsewhere, Mevorah said, may be due to beliefs that crucifixion nails had magic properties. People in the ancient world, he said, “might have collected the nails as amulets.”
Yehohanan was not alone in his ossuary: Inside, archaeologists found a second skeleton, this one belonging to a child aged three or four. They also noticed that the side of the ossuary bore a second, fainter inscription near the first. Curiously, this one also read “Yehohanan.”
After the discovery of the ossuary in the 1970s, the famous Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin suggested that the faint inscription referred to the crucified man and the second inscription — Yehohanan, son of Hagakol — to his son.
“Hagakol” is not a name familiar to scholars, and this theory suggested it was not a name at all. Instead, Yadin thought, having looked at similar words in use at the time, it might have meant “crucified.” The inscription thus read: Yehohanan, son of the Crucified One.
The child Yehohanan, in this version of events, died not long after the elder Yehohanan’s execution, and his bones were added to those of his father in the unadorned stone ossuary kept in the family’s burial cave north of the walled city.