Archaeologists were excited in 1968 to uncover the very first physical evidence of ancient crucifixion. The find came from a tomb of the 1st century AD near Jerusalem. Among the bones recovered from an ossuary was a heel bone that was still pierced by an iron nail. When the nail was driven into the wood of the cross it hit a knot that bent the end of nail, making it impossible to remove it. The body was buried with the nail still embedded in the heel bone. The ossuary was inscribed with the name of the deceased–Yehohanon ben Hagkol. For a fuller description of this artifact, see here.
Heel bone of a crucified man, with an iron nail, from Givat Ha’mivtar, Israel, 1st century AD
There are many references in literature from the Greek and Roman periods that tell us that crucifixion was not an uncommon form of capital punishment. The practice of crucifixion is known from as early as the 5th century in Greece. Herodotus mentions the crucifixion of a captured Persian general at the hands of the Athenians in 479 BC. Numerous other historical examples are known, including the following:
Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 survivors of his siege of Tyre.
Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 to 76 BC, crucified 800 rebels, said to be Pharisees, in the middle of Jerusalem.
In Hannibal’s day, crucifixion was an established mode of execution which could even be imposed on generals for suffering a major defeat.
Notorious mass crucifixions followed the Third Servile War in 73–71 BC, the slave rebellion under Spartacus. About 6,000 of his followers were crucified along the 125 mile Appian Way between Capua and Rome.
The Romans crucified many Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Josephus recognized some as friends– three were taken down, but only one survived.
And now archaeologists in northern Italy have uncovered a second example, this one also from the 1st century AD. Workers digging a trench in the city of Gavello, Italy, in late 2019 stumbled upon a skeleton that had been hurriedly buried in a simple dirt grave.
The right heel bone of this poorly preserved skeleton had a hole through it that archaeologists are convinced was made by a crucifixion nail. In fact, they were able to determine that the feet were placed side-by-side and the nail was driven through both heels at once. A report is available here.
Although many artists over the ages have imagined that the feet were nailed through the top of the foot, the fact that we now have two examples that were fastened by driving the nail through the heel bone suggests that this may have been the standard method.
If crucifixion was as common as the ancient literature seems to suggest, why haven’t we found more evidence of it? There are probably three factors affecting this. The first is that, out of the population as a whole, very few people were crucified. Although some of the numbers stated by ancient authors may seem large, they are quite small when the overall population is considered. Second, it may be the case that nails were not used in all cases. If, for example, a victim was simply tied to the cross, there would not be any identifiable evidence from the skeleton itself. Finally, those who were condemned to this kind of shameful death were usually criminals or enemies of the state. Their bodies were more likely to be left exposed or dumped in a shallow grave rather than to be buried in a tomb where their remains might be preserved. The example from Giv’at ha-Mivtar is unexpected in this regard, because the remains were clearly buried in the tomb of someone who was well off.