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How Did Crucifixion Really Work? A British Discovery Offers Clues.

Jesus’ crucifixion is at the center of Good Friday and the Easter resurrection. But the ancient form of capital punishment left little archaeological evidence behind.

The Washington Post

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As millions prepare to celebrate Easter this weekend, professing faith in the resurrection of Jesus on the holiest day of the Christian calendar, they will also embrace the engine of his death.

The cross has long been the definitive symbol of Christianity, and of victory over death. But the nature of crucifixion, considered one of the most horrifying forms of capital punishment in the ancient world, has long posed a mystery to archaeologists and historians because of how little evidence it left behind.

Ancient Roman historians, the Gospels and classical literature document the Romans’ use of crucifixion, but only four possible cases of crucifixion have been identified worldwide. The most recent discovery was quite recent: the skeleton of a man with a nail through his heel, unearthed in a Cambridgeshire, England, housing development in 2017.

The finding represented the first known archaeological evidence of crucifixion in the British Isles, according to David Ingham, project manager of Albion Archaeology, and Corinne Duhig, a professor at the University of Cambridge, who described their findings in the magazine British Archaeology.

“I think it shows that crucifixion was used all over the Roman Empire,” said John Granger Cook, a professor of religion at LaGrange College and author of “Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World.” “The only other archaeological evidence — if you want to call it archaeological — is graffiti.”

Ingham and Duhig said the remains were almost exactly like those found a half-century earlier, near the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in 1968. In both instances, the nail was found still embedded in the calcaneum, which is the largest bone in the foot and forms the heel. The findings clash with how religious writings and iconography have long depicted the practice, and they offer new evidence of how it appears to have worked — from how victims were nailed to the cross to how they ultimately died.

The Romans appear to have borrowed crucifixion from the Carthaginians, who probably built on earlier brutal punishments used by Assyrians and others in the Middle East, Cook said. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, reported that Roman troops crucified as many as 500 Jews a day during Jewish revolts in A.D. 1st century.

The point of crucifixion was to draw out the death struggle and the victim’s agony, and it thus became the most feared and shameful of all execution methods, meted out only to criminals, enslaved people and those accused of treason. The condemned were beaten and paraded through the streets to the execution site, as described with Jesus in the Gospels, while mobs jeered and rained abuse. Victims then were affixed to the crossbeam and raised onto the upright beam, which was generally set in a permanent place for subsequent executions.

“When people are working with the historical Jesus, [His crucifixion is] the one fact that nobody ever doubts, because it’s so incredibly embarrassing,” Cook said. “So we know that much for sure. We know He lived and He was put to death.”

Death occurred in a matter of days but sometimes would be expedited by striking the victim in the chest with a club, spearing them or breaking their legs, so victims could no longer push themselves up to breathe. Sometimes the cross stood close to the ground, within reach of dogs and other roaming animals, and ancient graffiti suggest it often resembled a capital T. Sometimes a small seat, known as the sedecula, was added to keep the person alive longer.

How, exactly, did Jesus die? Some scholarly papers, published by forensic pathologists, suggested He perished relatively quickly of pulmonary embolism, cardiac arrest or shock induced by a loss of blood, though the consensus in all crucifixion cases has settled on asphyxiation, as the lungs collapse under the weight of the victim’s suspended body.

The Jerusalem discovery, the first crucifixion victim’s remains found in modern times, helped fill in the picture.

The finding was a stroke of luck. The Romans lashed people to the cross with ropes more often than nails, which were so precious that it’s believed the Romans pulled them out and used them again. But archaeologists in 1968, examining burial caves at a construction site in East Jerusalem, happened upon a stone ossuary that bore the name “Yehohanan ben Hagqol” and contained the remains of a man, estimated to be 24 to 28 years old, whose heel had a rusty nail driven through it.

That placement immediately stood out. Iconography of Jesus’ crucifixion often depicts His wrists or hands nailed to the cross — which scholars say would have been unlikely to hold His weight — or a single nail driven through the top of both feet.

Nicu Haas, a professor in Hebrew University’s anthropology department, examined the Jerusalem remains somewhat hastily, because of religious authorities’ strictures on reinterring the remains. In a paper published in 1970, Haas reported finding two heel bones held together by the nail. A wooden plaque had been placed over the foot before the nail was driven in, to further ensure that the victim couldn’t free the leg. Haas thus theorized that the victim had been pinioned by both heels to the front of the upright beam either with their legs splayed open, frog-like, or with their knees bent and turned to one side.

Two other scholars — Joseph Zias, a curator in Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums, and Eliezer Sekeles, a professor at Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem — offered a reappraisal of the crucifixion a decade later. They said Haas erred in key ways: There was only one heel bone from the right foot, not two fused together by the nail and time; the leg did not appear to have been broken before death; and the approximately 4.5-inch nail was shorter than Haas believed and not able to have transited two heel bones and the wooden plaque.

Taken together, Zias and Sekeles offered a different theory on the manner of crucifixion, suggesting that each foot might have been nailed separately to the side of the upright beam. Their theory also fit with an ancient graffito found in Puteoli, Italy, depicting a crucified individual, with a woman’s name, Alkimila, above a shoulder.

The most recent discovery in Britain further illuminates understanding of the practice. The remains there, labeled Skeleton 4926, had been buried faceup, hands crossed in front, in a cemetery of a roadside settlement in a onetime Roman province that is now Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire. A dozen nails lay around it. A 13th was discovered in the heel bone in the laboratory.

The skeleton, which was mostly complete, dated to about A.D. 130 to 360. Its spine and ribs had been crushed, and the arms and legs also appeared to show signs of damage from binding or shackles, Duhig and Ingham said. The British archaeologists said the nail had been driven into the outside of the right heel bone, where there was also an impression from a hammer or other driving device having missed its mark — a sign of the almost casual manner in which suffering could be inflicted.

Cook, whose father was a Presbyterian minister, said the details and reality of crucifixion bring him up sharp as he reflects on Jesus’ death this time of year.

“I think a lot about the nature of human suffering and what the state can inflict on a human being. And the pain of crucifixion is, I suppose, some of the most profound the human being can experience,” he said. “And, frankly, it’s just too much at times.”

And then there is the strange mystery of the cross itself — as ghastly a punishment as any invented, now enshrined as the emblem of a spiritual renewal.

“It’s one of the ironies of history,” Cook said.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published April 8, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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