Crucifixion is a punishment as historically notorious as it is religiously significant; however, it continues to be one of the most mysterious methods of execution from antiquity, primarily due to the fact that no physical evidence of the practice had ever been found for millenia after the death of Jesus Christ. In fact, the only descriptions of it were found in art and literature from the era. Where was the physical evidence of crucifixion?
This all changed in 1968, when archaeologists discovered a stone box hidden away in a tomb located in northeastern Jerusalem. Inside the box were the remains of a Jewish man named Yehohanan, but what was particularly astounding about this man was that his heel bone appeared to have a thick nail driven through it – something that could prove that the man had been crucified. That's right – a single bone is the only existing physical evidence that crucifixion ever took place. Even more curious, perhaps, was that the body of a young boy was also found inside the box.
The fact that the nail was driven through the man's heel suggests that everything we thought we knew about crucifixion was wrong, and, in many ways, this discovery has generated more questions than answers.
Back in 1968, an archaeologist by the name of Vassilios Tzaferis had finally gotten around to excavating a group of Jewish tombs from the 1st century CE located at Giv'at ha-Mivtar in northeastern Jerusalem. There, he came across a particular ossuary, or stone box, containing the bones of the dead – essentially a coffin that would prove to be a significant discovery in support of biblical crucifixion stories.
On the outside of the box, a faint inscription was found that allegedly read, "Yehohanan ben Hagkol," or Yehohanan, son of Hagkol. Originally, this was believed to be a reference to the man's full name and family line; however, it would later be revealed that the inscription suggested something far more tragic about the contents of the box.
Upon further investigation, it turned out that there was no record of the surname Hagkol. Instead, when compared to linguistic patterns used during the time, the word actually may have meant "crucified." This suggests that the inscription is referring to the remains of the young boy – "son of the crucified one" – who was also found inside the ossuary. The two were buried together.
Then, inside the box, archaeologists came across the first physical evidence of a crucifixion ever found – a heel bone still bearing the nail that had been used to nail it to a cross.
Upon further investigation, researchers found that the nail used to crucify the man still had traces of olive tree wood on it, and it had bent from being nailed in. Perhaps even more significant than the evidence itself is what it tells us about the method of crucifixion. Most likely, nails were not driven through the palms of hands, and the feet were likely nailed through the heels on either side of the supporting beam.
The position of the nail in the heel disproves much of what is known about crucifixions in the ancient world. According to The Times of Israel,
The position of the stake was evidence of a crucifixion technique that had not previously been known, according to museum curator David Mevorah. In the image of crucifixion made famous by Christian iconography, Jesus is pictured with both feet nailed to the front of the vertical beam of the cross. But this man’s feet had been affixed to the sides of the beam with nails hammered separately through each heel.