Saturday, November 05, 2011

Line on the left, one cross each: Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion

Line on the left, one cross each: Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion

Line on the left, one cross each: Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion

As a researcher of the classical world, one of my favorite movies is Monty Python’s Life of Brian. An irreverent take on the swords-and-sandals perception of the Roman Empire, it takes place in Jerusalem in the early first century AD and focuses on an accidental prophet named Brian. Anyone who’s ever taken Latin has probably seen the portion of the film mocking Brian for his poor grasp of the language of power or the scene in which the leaders of the rebellion answer the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” But the movie also satirizes the pugilistic, callous nature of the Romans in a crucifixion scene:

The Romans practiced crucifixion - literally, “fixed to a cross” - for nearly a millennium. 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 - hence, excruciating - death. 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. 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.” Although crucifixion seems to have originated in Persia, 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 (stipes) and a crossbar (patibulum).

Generally, the stipes was erected first, and the victim was tied or nailed to the patibulum and then hoisted up. Usually, there was an inscription nailed above the victim, noting his particular crime, and sometimes victims got a wooden support to sit on (sedile) or to stand on (suppedaneum) (Retief & Cilliers 2003).

The process of crucifying someone varied greatly, as recorded by Seneca in 40 AD:

I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with their head down to the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms. — de Consolatione ad Marciam But often crucifixion involved driving nails into the wrists and the feet. Long, square nails (about 15cm long and 1cm thick) were hammered into the victim’s wrists or, occasionally, the 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 calcanei (heel bones), and in the second case, one nail would have been hammered through the metatarsals. To hasten death, the victim sometimes had his legs broken (crurifragium); the resulting compound fracture of the tibiae may have resulted in hemorrhage and fat embolisms, not to mention significant pain, thereby causing earlier death (Retief & Cilliers 2003).

Since the Romans crucified people from at least the 3rd century BC until 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.

Surprisingly, though, there is almost no direct archaeological evidence for crucifixion.

Several reasons can explain this lack of evidence:

The wooden crosses don’t survive, having degraded long ago or having been scavenged and re-used by others.

Victims of crucifixion were criminals and therefore not formally buried, likely exposed or thrown into a river or trash heap. It is therefore difficult to identify their bodies, and their exposure to scavenging animals would have hastened the destruction of their bones.

Crucifixion nails were believed to have magical or medical properties, so they were often taken from a crucifixion site or victim. Without the smoking gun of a nail in place, it becomes difficult to interpret whether skeletal remains show evidence of crucifixion or were otherwise subject to taphonomic processes, like scavenger activity.

Injuries sustained by a person who was crucified were largely soft tissue in nature. However, if the person was subjected to crurifragium or had nails driven into his hands and/or feet, there would be osteological evidence of the practice in the form of perimortem tibia fractures and metatarsals or calcanei with clear sharp trauma (puncture wounds) to them.

Only one bioarchaeological example of crucifixion has ever been found. In 1968, Vassilios Tzaferis excavated some tombs in the northeastern section of Jerusalem, at a site called Giv’at ha-Mivtar.

Within this rather wealthy 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 (Tzaferis 1985). Based on osteological analysis (Haas 1970), 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. With good dental and skeletal health, Haas (1970:55)

suggests Yehohanan was “the Hellenistic ideal ephebe.” A facial reconstruction was carried out based on cranial measurements with a good helping of artistry, and Yehohanan looks back at us two millennia after his death:

Facial reconstruction of Yehohanan ben Hagkol Figures 4 and 5 from Haas 1970.

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 calcaneus and the sustentaculum tali of the left calcaneus 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.

Calcaneus transfixed by an iron nail, from a 1st c AD Jewish tomb at Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Figure 1, Maslen & Mitchell 2006.

Drawing of the calcaneus with nail. Figure 6 from Haas 1970.

Interpretation of the method of crucifixion is quite interesting.

Haas (1970: 56-8) first thought that the lower limbs were in an “open” position, with the two calcanei crossed and fixed in the middle by an iron nail. Upon restoration of the bones, Haas changed his interpretation to suggest that the feet were adjacent, with the right foot first to receive the nail. Further, the right tibia and left tibia and fibula were all broken towards the distal (foot) end; the right tibia showed a comminuted, perimortem fracture, but the left tibia and fibula had simple oblique fractures. The right radius also presented a small “scratch” on the distal third of the interosseus border with the ulna.

Haas interprets this as sharp trauma inflicted perimortem and suggests that it represents a nail having been driven through the lower forearm/wrist. In short, Yehohanan had been nailed to the cross - both arms and feet - and had been subjected to crurifragium. He likely died an extremely painful death, although one that was faster than most crucifixions.

Although celebrated osteologist Vilhelm Moller-Christensen (1976) backed up Haas’s interpretation, a reanalysis of the skeleton by Zias and Sekeles (1985) took issue with Haas’s interpretation of the position of the calcanei, suggesting that the nail was only 11.5cm long and that the bone material Haas interpreted as the left calcaneus was instead a portion of long bone. They further suggested that Haas was overly optimistic in his interpretation of sharp trauma to the radius, noting that it does not seem to have been traumatic in nature. And finally, Zias and Sekeles found no evidence to support Haas’s suggestion that Yehohanan had been subjected to crurifragium - the bones were simply too degraded and fragmentary to conclusively show that kind of perimortem trauma. With no evidence of trauma to the arms, Zias and Sekeles reconstruct the position of crucifixion as follows:

Reconstruction of the crucifixion of Yehohanan Figure 1 from Zias and Sekeles 1985.

The bone material from the Giv’at ha-Mivtar ossuary is unfortunately no longer available for analysis. It was reburied after the studies by Haas and Zias and Sekeles were completed, probably in the mid 1980s. All osteologists involved seem to have thoroughly documented the evidence and their interpretations, but it would have been nice to have saved the sole example of crucifixion ever to have been found.

A lot of rather random chance is involved in the creation of the archaeological record - from weather conditions to sociocultural customs to rodent activity. In spite of the potential problems involved in the preservation of evidence of crucifixion, the case of Yehohanan ben Hagkol illustrates that it is possible to gain insight into the practice of crucifixion through bioarchaeological evidence. Some victims were clearly given proper burials, skeletal injuries were sustained, not all nails could be removed and sold as talismans, and even fragments of wood can survive two millennia of burial.

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, Josephus reported that up to 500 Jews were crucified every day during the siege of Jerusalem (Holoubek & Holoubek 1995). The bioarchaeology of crucifixion is therefore a bit of a conundrum: it makes sense that finding evidence may be difficult because of the vagaries of taphonomy, but the sheer volume of people killed in this way over centuries should have given us more direct evidence of the practice. Going through the literature on the practice has convinced me that those of us who work in the Roman world need to be on the lookout for archaeological and biological evidence that may suggest crucifixion.


N. Haas (1970). Anthropological observations on the skeletal remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar Israel Exploration Journal, 20, 30-59.

J.E. Holoubek & A.B. Holoubek (1995). Execution by crucifixion.

History, methods and cause of death. Journal of Medicine, 26 (1-2), 1-16 PMID: 7561527.

M. Maslen & P.D. Mitchell (2006). Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (4), 185-188 DOI:


V. Moller-Christensen (1976). Skeletal remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar Israel Exploration Journal, 26, 35-38.

F.P. Retief FP, & L. Cilliers (2003). The history and pathology of crucifixion. South African Medical Journal , 93 (12), 938-41 PMID: 14750495.

V. Tzaferis (1985). Crucifixion - the archaeological evidence Biblical Archaeology Review, 11, 44-53 Zias, J., & Sekeles, E. (1985). The Crucified Man from Giv c at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal The Biblical Archaeologist, 48 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3209939