By January 10, 2016 Read More →

Joe Zias. Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence

Crucifixion Bone FragmentWhereas crucifixion, a form of state terror described by Josephus as “the most wretched of deaths” (Jewish Wars 7,23) persisted for hundreds of years, few are aware of its widespread use with victims being crucified on all three continents in the Ancient World.  As late as the third century A.D. poets, murderers, robbers, mischief makers and deceivers were individuals deserving to be crucified (Koechly).   Thus it was not confined to slaves, males and rebellious individuals threatening the status quo, in fact it had become a popular form of public entertainment in Alexandria during the reign of Caligula (37-41 A.D) similar to throwing unfortunate victims to battle wild animals in the amphitheatre (Philo Flace 72.84-85).

Literature cites numerous instances of mass crucifixions, and while many victims were left to be disposed of on the town dumps, taken down by wild animals and birds of prey, aside from one archaeological find in Jerusalem (Zias 1985), no direct archaeological evidence for this form of execution and terror exists. The question facing archaeologists has always been why so little evidence, particularly when historians can rightly ask, was there any group in antiquity which did not crucify in one form or another?  Answers to these questions can be found by examining the skeletal remains of a male crucified by the Romans, discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. Within a first century CE Jewish ossuary were the human remains of three individuals, including a right heel bone (Calcaneum) penetrated by an iron nail, bent at its distal end. (Fig. 1-2) The positioning of the bent nail, making it impossible to remove from the victim’s heel, provided one answer why there is virtually no direct evidence for crucifixion as well as explaining anatomically why this particular place on the lower limb was chosen for nailing.

Those chosen to carry out crucifixions wished to see victims suffering on the cross/tree as these punishments were carried out in a public place. According to Quintilian (ca. 35-95 AD) “whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect” (Decl. 274).  Employed by rulers as a deterrent, the longer the victim suffers on the cross the stronger the effect upon the populace which is why a small seat (senicle) was sometimes affixed to the upright. Anatomically speaking, the weight bearing calcaneum, the largest as well as the strongest bone in the foot is mechanically the ideal place for the nail to enter. Furthermore, like the palm of the hand, the superior portion of the foot is anatomically unable to bear the weight of the victim thus unsatisfactory for affixing the lower limbs to the cross.

The paucity of any direct physical evidence in the archaeological record for crucifixion can best be explained by the fact that aside from the Jews, most victims crucified by the Romans were not allotted a proper burial. Victims were simply tossed onto the public dumps, which archaeologically speaking is not high on the list of archaeological sites to be excavated.  Jewish law however, which requires the deceased to be buried before sundown, was probably an exception in that according to the historian Josephus Flavius (Against Apion II.73), the Romans did not require Jews to violate their religious law.  This in and of itself would explain the evidence for beheading (Zias 1983), crucifixion and other forms of extreme violence (Zias 1992) found in Jewish burials of the period.

According to the historian Josephus, during the siege of Jerusalem (66-70 CE), upwards of 500 victims a day were crucified outside the walls of the city, until their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies (WAR5:11). Aside from the one case presented here, the lack of direct archaeological evidence for these mass executions can be explained by several factors.  Firstly, iron nails employed in crucifixion were one of the most powerful healing amulets in antiquity.  Such was their magical power that in Jewish law, they along with the tooth of a jackal and the egg of a locust were the only objects Jews were allowed to carry in their pockets on Sabbath (Shabbath 6.10).  Lastly and perhaps most important, is the structure of the calcaneum.  Unlike the tibia and the fibula possessing dense, compact cortical bone the calcaneum is composed of spongy bone within a thin outer cortex. As a result, severe trauma to the heel results in an infinite variety of fracture pattering, which until recently was very difficult for physicians to repair.  Thus within a period of time after the flesh of the victim had decayed, post-mortem evidence in the shattered calcaneum would not be forensically visible.

In order to understand the fragile nature of the calcaneum we attempted to perforate, using a high speed drill, a hole through dry defleshed bone for inserting a spike similar to that used in crucifixion. Due to the thinness of the cortex, the cortical bone collapsed leaving a gaping wound.  Thus the ability of the calcaneum structurally to withstand severe impact either from a fall or a penetrating wound as in nailing, without complex fracturing, is minimal. In the case of the crucified man from Givat ha-Mivtar, Jerusalem, the insertion of the nail had a shearing effect, which separated the anterior portion of the heel from the posterior. Within 12 months the flesh has decayed from the victim’s body, leaving but the skeletal remains which were then placed in the ossuary and reburied in the family tomb according to Jewish custom.  As the family of the deceased was unable to remove the bent nail from the right heel following death, both the anterior and posterior portion of the bone along with the nail was reburied in the ossuary a year later, according to Jewish law,. The bent nail in the heel led to the posterior portion of the bone to adhere to the nail whereas the anterior portion had in time completely separated from the rear of the heel until its discovery 2,000 years later. The severely fragmented left calcaneum was also recovered from the ossuary without a nail thus making it difficult for anatomical reconstruction.

The first centuries BCE and of the CE were times of intense conflict in the city of Jerusalem, due in part to Roman rule and ongoing internal conflict within the local population.   Close to one thousand Jewish family tombs from Jerusalem have been discovered during this period of struggle and despite intensive archaeological/anthropological activity, the crucified man from Giv’at Ha Mivtar remains the only direct evidence for this form of state terror, here and in the Ancient World.  (Cook 2011) Whereas tying individuals to crosses, which was frequently used, would not permit forensic anthropologists to accurately determine the technique employed in the process, the silence in the anthropological record when nailing was permitted can be explained by the massive fracturing effect of the calcaneum when nailed. In fact, having forensically examined the skeletal remains of hundreds of individuals from this period, presenting various types of pathology, one has of yet to view a calcaneum presenting any type of healed ante mortem fracture which would explain why forensic anthropologists have not been able to find any direct evidence for crucifixion in the ancient world.  Thus, with this widespread form of state terror, the near total absence of direct anthropological evidence for the nailing of the feet in the archaeological record would seem to indicate the most plausible reason why, direct physical evidence has and will always be lacking.

References and Suggested Readings

Felicity Harley-Mcgowan (forthcoming) ‘The Constanza Gem and the development of crucifixion iconography in late antiquity’,  Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity AD 200-600, Proceedings from the Byzantine Conference at the British Museum , March 2009, eds Christopher Entwistle & Noel Adams, London , British Museum Press [forthcoming]

Cook, J. G. (2011) Crucifixion and Burial, New Testament Studies 57, pp193-213. Cambridge University Press.

Hengel, M. (1977) Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the message of the Cross. Trans. J. Bowden.  London: SCM Press.

Koechly, H.  Pseudo-Manetho, Apotelesmatica 4.198ff 69.

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

Zias, J.  (1983) Anthropological Evidence of Interpersonal Violence in Jerusalem During the First Century AD. Current Anthropology, April:  233-34.

Zias, J. and Sekeles, E. (1985) The Crucified Man from Givat ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal 35: 22-27. .

Zias, J. (1991) Death and Disease in Ancient Israel. Biblical Archaeology, September : 145-59.

Zias, J. (1992) The Human Skeletal Remains from the Late Second Century Tomb at Mt. Scopus. `Atiqot, vol. XXI: 97-103.

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