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The first example of Roman crucifixion in Great Britain has been unearthed in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire.

Working ahead of a housing development near the small village of Fenstanton a team from Bedford based ‘Albion Archaeology’, members of which have been on site since 2017, have uncovered a previously unknown Roman settlement.

Five small cemeteries have been identified and the skeletal remains of 40 adults and five children buried identified with evidence that some were from the same families. The cemeteries have been dated to the third to fourth centuries CE.

In one of the graves, the skeleton of a man with a nail through his right heel bone was discovered. Further examination suggested that the man had suffered before he died with his legs bearing signs of infection or inflammation caused by either a systemic disorder or by being bound or shackled.

Nail found embedded in ankle bone Credit ‘Albion Archaeology’

Archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec, speaking on behalf of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Historic Environment Team, said: “These cemeteries and the settlement that developed along the Roman road at Fenstanton are breaking ground in archaeological research.

“Burial practices are many and varied in the Roman period and evidence of ante- or post-mortem mutilation is occasionally seen, but never crucifixion.”

Cambridge University osteologist (bone specialist) of the university’s Wolfson College, Corinne Duhig said it was an “almost unique” find at what was a previously unknown Roman settlement.

She continued, “The lucky combination of good preservation and the nail being left in the bone has allowed me to examine this unique example when so many thousands have been lost. This shows that the inhabitants of even this small settlement at the edge of empire could not avoid Rome’s most barbaric punishment.”

Cambridgeshire Council said Corinne Duhig’s research into evidence of crucifixion from this period around the world revealed only three other possible examples, one from La Larda in Gavello, Italy, one from Mendes in Egypt and one from a burial found at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem found during building work in 1968.

She found only the Jerusalem example to be a likely crucifixion because the right heel bone retained a nail which was in exactly the same position as the Fenstanton burial.

The county council said it was usual to remove any nails after crucifixion for re-use or disposal but in the Fenstanton case the nail had bent and become fixed in the bone.

During the excavation, a number of other items were unearthed including enamelled brooches, coins, decorated pottery and animal bones. Amongst the finds was an enamelled copper-alloy horse and rider brooch.

A large building and a formal yard or road surfaces indicated the presence of an organised Roman settlement with signs of trade and wealth, the council said. It said it hoped to be able to display the finds eventually.

Fenstanton’s High Street follows the route of the Via Devana, a road that linked the Roman towns of Cambridge and Godmanchester.

Links:

Cambridge University article dated 8th December 2021: https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/romancrucifixion

Cambridgeshire County Council article dated 8th December 2021: https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/news/the-first-example-of-a-roman-crucifixion-in-the-uk-has-been-found-in-a-cambridgeshire-village

Albion Archaeology: https://www.albionarchaeology.co.uk

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