Second (Or Third) Ever Skeleton with Evidence of Crucifixion Discovered
The remains of a 2000-year old man discovered in 2007 near Gavello, southwest of Venice in northern Italy are being claimed to be the second ‘crucified skeletal remains’ ever unearthed. Researchers have found evidence that the man had been nailed to a wooden cross, similarly to how Jesus was described as having died in the Christian Biblical description of the crucifixion.
The new findings have published in the April 2018 edition of the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences under the title “A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?.” Researchers initially found the burial “unusual” in that “The body had been buried directly in the ground, instead of being placed in a tomb, and without any burial goods,” said co-author and researcher Emanuela Gualdi from the University of Ferrara to the Italian-language paper Estense.
Image of the skeleton found in northern Italy, which may be the second known evidence of crucifixion. (Image: Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018, ResearchGate)
This made the remains a ‘skeleton of interest’, and further, thorough examination followed which resulted in a stimulating find - a seemingly strategically placed hole.
Gualdi and her researchers observed:
“In the specific case, despite the poorly preserved conditions, we could demonstrate the presence of signs on the skeleton that indicate a violence similar to crucifixion.”
This evidence was found on the single heel bone that was with the incomplete remains. The legion area is described thus: ‘a single perforation passes through the bone’. It seemed distinct from other perforations which were present in the bones which might be caused by ‘biological factors’ such as ‘root/fungi etching and activities of carnivores and carrion insects’.
However, nothing was found to suggest the wrists had been nailed and the research paper concluded that “the paucity of proof means the arms could just as easily have been tied to the cross, as is thought to possibly be the case in the Jerusalem example.”
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The right calcaneus from Gavello. A single perforation passes through the bone. (Image: ResearchGate)
The Jerusalem Example
The first crucified body to be found was in a dig in Jerusalem in 1968 by Dr Vassilios Tzaferis while excavating a 2nd century BC to 70 AD Jewish cemetery.
Dr Tzaferis, who died in 2015, was a former Greek Orthodox monk and ran excavations at Ashkelon, Beth Shean, Capernaum, Kursi, Tel Dan and in Jerusalem, to name a handful. In a 1985 Biblical Archaeology Review article written by Dr Tzaferis titled Crucifixion — The Archaeological Evidence, he claimed the Romans did not actually create this painfully torturous form of death:
“Many people erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention…Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium BCE.”
Proof of crucifixion: The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan, discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. (Courtesy of the Israel Museum. Photographer: Ilan Shtulman)
The Jerusalem example has a 4.5 inch (11.5 cm) nail hammered right through the heel and was found with some of the original olive wood still attached. This is deemed conclusive proof of that the act of crucifixion had taken place.
The latest discovery is less conclusive (no nail present) and so further circumstantial evidence from the burial has been offered that supports the theory.
Gualdi told Live Science that "We cannot know if he was a prisoner, but the burial marginalization indicates that he probably was an individual deemed dangerous or defamed in the Roman society.” Co-author Ursula Thun Hohenstein told Estense, “The importance of the discovery lies in the fact that it is the second case documented in the world.”
Widespread Use of Crucifixion
The study explains that the Romans adopted the punishment from the Carthaginians and it was employed up until the 4 th century BC. There were varying but specific methods of crucifixion described ‘by Latin writers and by a Roman inscription’, notes the report.
According to many historical accounts, there were thousands of victims of this brutal form of torture and death. The most well-known story, of course, comes from the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus Christ, along with numerous others.
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Crucifixion of Christ with Saints by Pietro Perugino circa 1485-90. (Public Domain)
Earlier accounts have Alexander the Great crucifying 2,000 survivors of the capture of Tyre writes Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus in his “Life of Alexander,” according to an account by G.W. Thielman, who also cites a report by Appian of 6000 gladiators and slaves who had been led by Spartacus being crucified by Marcus Licinius Crassus after the Third Servile War in 71BC. Add to that 800 Pharisee rebels…2600 to calm the unrest after Herod’s death…3600 at the hand of Gessius Flores and the bodies are stacking up – in Biblical proportions.
So, where are these mounds of bones with signature holes of crucifixion and a scattering of nails accompanying them? The report offers some explanations.
Destruction of Evidence
Firstly, the issue of the lack of remaining crucifixion apparatus. Any organic matter would be subject to decomposition, leading to a virtual disappearance of wood or rope used. As for the iron nails, the report explains ‘the nails were commonly salvaged after death’.
This goes some way to explain the lack of evidence, but what about the bones with the tell-tale holes? Well it seems that the recycling of nails could explain this too. In order to retrieve the nail that has been driven tightly into the bone, the easiest method (lacking a good set of cast-iron pliers) is to break the surrounding bone. In doing this, evidence of the presence of the nail through the bone is practically erased.
It seems likely that more evidence will exist but with the victims of the practice being mainly slaves, foreigners (citizens of Rome were rarely crucified) or revolutionaries, the corpses are unlikely to be found amongst the usual burial grounds.
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A photo of the Abba Cave with inscription. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Nails in the Coffin
Although this recent find is welcome additional evidence for what was supposedly a frequent practice of the time, the physical evidence is still incredibly scarce. There is however, a third example claimed to exist which is still subject to scrutiny, even though nails were found with the bones. The Abba Cave was explored in 1970 and supposedly held the, ‘bones of a person 25 years old — including those of the hand with embedded nails’ notes a Popular Archaeology article. Whether these nails had penetrated the bones or not is still under examination, with the most recent tests claiming they did.
If a case where nails have been found with the bones can be dismissed for 35 years as no proof of crucifixion occurring, what hope does this latest discovery stand against the skeptics?
Top image: Place of execution in ancient Rome. The crucified slaves. Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, 1878. Source: Public Domain
By Gary Manners