Though the Bible and several other ancient historical documents talk about crucifixion as a brutal form of Roman execution, there has been very little archaeological evidence found of this ancient practice.
However, a group of Italian researchers discovered that a skeleton of man uncovered in Northern Italy in 2007 was probably crucified.
If this proves correct, it will be only the second example found revealing the brutal form of punishment used by the Romans to execute criminals.
The first one was found in 1968 while excavating a Jerusalem cemetery connected with the second Jewish temple (2 BC t0 70 Ad). In an ossuary used to store the bones of the deceased, they discovered a man with a nail in his heel. There was also a fragment from the olive tree used for the cross attached to the nail.
Because the metal nails were so valuable, the Roman typically pulled them out after the person had died. This is part of the reason, it is difficult to determine if a person was crucified. In this case, the nail bent making it difficult to remove.
A family member had scratched the man’s name, Jehohanan, the son of Hagakol, on the outside of the ossuary. He was between 20-24 years of age and both of his legs were broken.
If the Romans typically used Olive trees for crucifixion, the crosses would not have been very high off the ground. Most would have been eye level.
According to the study reported in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, during an 2007 infrastructure construction in the municipality of Gavello, workers discovered the remains of a 30-34 year old male.
The research team examined the skeleton using a 3D scanner at the University of Siena and found a hole that passed completely through the right heel indicating crucifixion.
Contrary to many paintings, the nails were not pounded through the front of the feet. They were twisted sideways so the side of the heel was flat to the wood. They then placed one heel on top of the other and pounded a nail through the back heel bones of both feet into the wood.
The other method was having both of the person’s feet twisted outward so the sides of both heels were similarly flat to the wood and then nailed to the cross individually or they nailed the feet on the out sides of the cross. Historical documents show the Romans used a variety of methods.
The hands were either nailed to the cross through the wrists or tied by rope. In ancient times, people considered the wrists as part of the hands. We know in Jesus’s case nails were used for the feet and hands.
In the case of the Italian man, he was not buried in a cemetery or with grave goods suggesting he was rejected in death as he was in life. There was also evidence of torture before execution. Based on the pottery shards found during the excavation, the man was executed 2,000 years ago.
The crucifixion was a torturous form of punishment and it could take up to four days for a person to die, often from asphyxiation. When the person was hung with his arms stretched out, it would eventually result in a paralysis in the chest muscles making it impossible to breathe.
The only way a person could get air was to push down with his feet on the bottom nail to lift his body up resulting in excruciating pain. Having breathed, the person would slump down, and hang from the nails in his wrists. Sleep would be almost impossible under these circumstances.
This process would repeat itself until the person no longer had the strength to push himself up with his legs. When the Romans wanted to hasten death they would break the legs of the person being crucified:
31 Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; (John 19:31-32 NIV)
If the Romans were in a particularly brutal mood they would fashion a seat so the person could sit, prolonging the death. Sometimes the seats were shaped in the form of a horn so they would eventually cut into the lower part of the body.
The Romans were not the first to invent crucifixion, both the Assyrians and the Phoenicians used it. Records were also found of King Darius I of Persia executing 3,000 political opponents in 519 BC. The Romans used crucifixion as a way of executing its worst or most marginalized criminals. It was used until Rome’s first Christian emperor Constantine (306 t0 337 AD) banned it.
- A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences
- How Jesus died: Extremely rare evidence of Roman crucifixion uncovered in Italy: Times of Israel