UK’s first example of Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire village

The first example of a Roman crucifixion in the UK has been found in a Cambridgeshire village.

Albion Archaeology discovered a large, previously unknown Roman roadside settlement in 2017 while carrying out an excavation in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire on behalf of Tilia Homes (previously Kier Living). Finding Roman burials on such a site is common, and this was no exception – yet one of the people buried at Fenstanton had been crucified.

Archaeologists investigating a previously unknown Roman roadside settlement, which includes five small cemeteries, discovered in one grave the remains of a man with a nail through his heel.

Only one previous example like this of crucifixion has been found worldwide, in Israel, although two possible instances have also been claimed in Italy and Egypt. However, the Fenstanton example is the best preserved.

The exciting discovery follows on from previous historically significant digs across Cambridgeshire in recent years which have uncovered preserved Bronze Age buildings and artefacts at Must Farm in Whittlesey, pristine prehistoric occupation sites and burial monuments in Needingworth Quarry, and new Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements that emerged during the course of the recent A14 road improvement scheme around Cambridge.

The cemeteries and man who was crucified were discovered during excavations of two sites in advance of new housing developments by Tilia Homes (previously known as Kier Living) south of Cambridge Road, and by Morris Homes at the former Dairy Crest brownfield site. The excavations were led by David Ingham of Albion Archaeology.

Osteologist (human bone specialist) Corinne Duhig from Wolfson College, Cambridge, said: “The lucky combination of good preservation and the nail being left in the bone has allowed me to examine this almost 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.”

Inside the cemeteries, 40 adults and five children were buried, with specialist study showing that some family groups were present. The Roman settlements, now fully excavated, also included a number of archaeologically significant artefacts.

The results of the excavation will be formally published when analysis of the site’s finds and evidence has been completed.

Speaking for Cambridgeshire County Council’s Historic Environment Team, archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec said: “These cemeteries and the settlement that developed along the Roman road at Fenstanton are breaking new 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.

“We look forward to finding out more when the results are published. Hopefully, there will be a museum exhibit to showcase the remains soon, and we are working to arrange this. We are grateful to the developers for funding these important investigations as part of their planning obligation.”

Fenstanton lies on the Via Devana, the road which linked the Roman towns at Cambridge and Godmanchester. While numerous Iron Age sites are known in the area, this roadside settlement appears to have been an essentially new Roman venture on the line of the road, covering at least 6 hectares and possibly situated at a crossroads. The presence of an early Anglo-Saxon grubenhaus or sunken-floored building points to some level of continued post-Roman habitation after the 4th century.

Support from Tilia Homes meant that the central, best-preserved part of the settlement was left undisturbed by the new housing development. The excavation focused on the enclosures around the edge, away from the domestic areas – though the footings of a large wooden building and traces of stone street or yard surfaces were found in the areas closest to the centre.

One of these enclosures contained large numbers of animal bones that suggest the presence of a large-scale industrial operation. Cattle bones were being split in such a way that large amounts of marrow and grease would have been released – for the manufacture of items such as soap or tallow for candles. The bones are likely to have come from a combination of cattle that were kept at Fenstanton, as well as carcasses that were imported from a nearby Roman town specifically for specialist butchers to process them here.

The excavation also revealed a number of Roman graves, mostly clustered into small cemeteries – the size of household cemetery plots, though DNA evidence identified surprisingly few family groupings. Analysis of the skeletons has revealed that the mostly adult population suffered from a large number of injuries and illnesses. None of the graves appeared remarkable during excavation – but while one of the skeletons was being washed back at the lab, it was found to have a nail through its heel.

The skeleton was that of a man aged roughly 25–35, with signs of poor dental health and arthritis that were common among many of the people buried here. There were also signs of thinning on his lower legs, which may have been caused by infection or inflammation or perhaps by local irritation from being bound or shackled.


Twelve nails that were found around the skeleton suggest that he had been placed on a board or a bier (probably not in a coffin), but the 13th had passed horizontally through his right heel bone (calcaneum). It seems implausible that the nail could have been accidentally driven through the bone during construction of the timber support on which the body was placed – indeed, there are even signs of a shallow second hole that suggests an unsuccessful first attempt to pierce the bone.


While this cannot be taken as incontrovertible proof that the man was crucified, it seems the only plausible explanation – making it at most the fourth example ever recorded worldwide through archaeological evidence. Crucifixion was relatively commonplace in Roman times, but the victims were often tied to the cross rather than nailed, and if nails were used then it was routine to remove them afterwards. Only one other example has been found with a nail surviving in situ through the bone, discovered at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem during building work in 1968; skeletons with a similar hole have also been found at Gavello in Italy and at Mendes in Egypt, but without a nail in place and with doubt over how the holes had been formed.

The remarkable fact about this skeleton is not that the man was crucified, but that his body was reclaimed after death and given a formal burial alongside others, leaving us with this extremely rare evidence of what had happened to him.

An iron nail penetrated his right heel bone (calcaneum) horizontally, consistent with crucifixion. His feet would have been nailed to the sides of an upright timber.

In life he had suffered from poor health and injury, and his ankles may have been shackled. The victim may have been a slave.

This is the best physical evidence for a crucifixion in the Roman world – the only instance from northern Europe and the fourth reported worldwide. No nails are associated with two of the others, and plant roots may have caused the holes. Previously unique is a heel bone excavated in Israel in 1968, with a nail in the same position as the new find. It was less well preserved and was reburied, and there has been controversy about the find.


The grave was in a small cemetery, one of five around a newly discovered Roman settlement at Fenstanton, between Roman Cambridge and Godmanchester.

The site of crucifixion is unknown, but is likely to have been elsewhere, probably beside a road.

The man’s bones have been radiocarbon dated to between AD130 and 360. Constantine, acclaimed emperor in York (306–337), is thought to have banned crucifixion, so the man likely died between 130 and 337.

The nail was not seen until conservation occurred off site. Prolonged analysis by Corinne Duhig, archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who examined the human remains from Fenstanton, established crucifixion as the only likely explanation. Signs of punitive injuries and immobilisation before and around the time of death, says Duhig, suggest the victim may have been a slave.

Romans reserved crucifixion for condemned slaves, rebels and lower classes. Cicero was among writers who criticised the cruel practice, designed to prolong an agonising death.

Crucifixion nails are thought to be so rare because:

  • Crucified people would not often have received proper burial.
  • Crucifixion was often done with rope.
  • Nails would have been recycled for their metal value, and may also have been collected for perceived magical properties.

The exact location of the crucifixion is not being disclosed to respect the privacy of the current homeowner.

A detailed article on the excavation can be found in the British Archaeology magazine at

Crucifixion in the Fens: Life and Death in Roman Fenstanton


Fenstanton is a quaint, historic roadside village whose High Street follows the route of the Via Devana, which linked the Roman towns of Cambridge and Godmanchester.

In 2017 and 2018, Albion Archaeology excavated two sites in advance of new housing developments by Tilia Homes (previously known as Kier Living), south of Cambridge Road, and by Morris Homes at the former Dairy Crest brownfield site.

Some of the more noteworthy findings included enamelled brooches, large numbers of coins, decorated fine ware pottery and large amounts of animal bones displaying specialist butchery methods. These, along with a large building and formal yard or road surfaces, indicated the presence of an organised Roman settlement with obvious signs of trade and wealth.

This settlement might have been maintained as a formal stopping place along the road to service travellers around which the village grew, and there is some evidence to suggest that it developed at a crossroads.

Forty adults and five children were buried in the five small cemeteries that dated to the third to fourth centuries AD, while three isolated burials and a cremation also occurred.

Ancient DNA study of the skeletons identified only two family groups, despite this being a small rural settlement where you would expect many people to be related.

A man and woman buried next to each other in one cemetery had a first-degree relationship – either as mother-son or as siblings – while two men in adjacent graves in another cemetery were second-degree relatives, so could be either half-siblings, uncle-nephew or grandfather-grandson.

Overall, the population had signs of poor body health, terrible dental disease and some showed signs of malaria. Evidence of physical trauma including fractures was also seen in most of the bodies.

One particular skeleton of a man had been laid out in his grave like all the rest. However, a large iron nail penetrated the right heel bone (calcaneum) horizontally, exiting below the protrusion called the sustentaculum tali.

His skeleton revealed other injuries and abnormalities that indicated he had suffered before he died, while his legs had signs of infection or inflammation caused by either a systemic disorder or by local irritation such as binding or shackles.

Although crucifixion was common in the Roman world, osteological evidence for the practice is unlikely to be found because nails were not always used and bodies might not appear in formal burial settings.

Unlike the most famous Christian example of the crucifixion of Jesus, who was unusually nailed by his hands and feet to a cross, victims or prisoners were more commonly tied by the arms to the crossbar of a T-shaped frame called a ‘patibulum’ and their legs braced and tied, sometimes nailed, to either side of the upright post.

This was part of a cruel, ancient method of slow punishment of both miscreants of shameful crimes and a vast number of slaves who were crucified because of minor misdemeanours. This form of punishment was eventually abolished by Constantine I in the 4th Century AD.

Corinne has researched the evidence of crucifixion from this period around the world, finding only three other 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.

Only the last one is a convincing example of crucifixion, she said, because the right heel bone retained a nail which was in exactly the same position as that from the Fenstanton burial. It was usual practice to remove any nails after crucifixion for re-use, discard or use as amulets, but in this case the nail had bent and become fixed in the bone.



Village Hall – some historic notes.

I have written these notes about the Fenstanton Village Hall entirely from memory as I no longer have any references. so there may be errors in detail but the broad picture is accurate.

The Fenstanton Conservatives had a successful club in the High Street but the lease of its premises must have expired as the Club had no premises in the 1 920 s.

Prominent Conservatives such as Edward Kiddle and Sir Arthur Dilley raised money for a new hall and in 1 926 Henry Johnson gave a piece of land in trust to local Conservatives on which they could build a hall. . It was called The Constitutional Hall In time, due to lack of funds this hall deteriorated and in 1978 was sold to the village for £4,259 of which the Parish Council paid £3,000 on the casting vote of Bill Robins, Chairman of the Parish Council., The Hall was renamed “Fenstanton Village Hall”, and registered as a charity . .

There two forms of trustees initially. Management Trustees and Custodian Trustees . . The first duty of the local Custodian Trustees was to hand over their trusteeship to the Charity Commission but did not do so. They were not to interfere with the work of the Management Trustees.

In 1979 I retired and attended an annual meeting of the Village Hall Committee where I was elected a trustee, At my first meeting I asked for copy of the rules of the committee but the chairman , Arthur Dunn said that they did not worry with such things. . I looked into things and found that Arthur , Bill Robins and the rest were still Custodian Trustees and should not be managing affairs.

A firm of solicitors had been engaged to see to the transfer of trusteeship; I visited them and found them very helpful although I felt them to be an unnecessary expense. These stages of correspondence ensued and achieved absolutely nothing:-

The Charity Commission sent a vesting form to solicitor who sent them for completion to the Custodian Chairman, Arthur Dunn Arthur returned them to the solicitor who passed them on to the Charity Commission. The Charity Commission returned them to the solicitor as they had been completed incorrectly.

The Solicitor sent them back to Arthur for correction After “correction” Arthur returned them to the solicitor who passed on to the Charity Commission Once more the Charity Commission sent them back to the solicitor as they still were not right Back to Arthur went these forms and were not seen again

At my request the Charity Commission sent me the forms stating that now I must get the signature of each of the Trustees which I did and in 1982 an Order was sealed. What the solicitor did I never found out.

At the AGM Bill Robins said that he supposed Arthur would again be in the Chair However I asked for an election and proposed Reg Keyworth Out of the room went the two candidates and returned when called, Arthur returning to the Chair.

Unhappily for him Reg had been elected so at last there was some sense in the administration. Arthur and Bill were true descendants of Mary but it was the Sons of Martha that were needed to get the Hall into shape. Arthur and Bill did not lift a finger to work on the Hall but fortunately there was a good team of practical folk, Tony Hart with assistance from Reg Keyworth rewired the electrical circuits.

Outside the north wall, earth, rubble and dog dirt were two feet deep , higher than the damp course. A team of volunteers with shovels came each evening and excavated , loading the debris into a trailer which Michael Behagg had placed by the Hall. The trailer was emptied each morning and returned for use by the evening. . Damp course and roof gutters were cleared. Derek Holley was one of the volunteers.

We now had to get a licence for Public Entertainment and a District Council inspector gave us our orders. The front door opened up to an immediate drop. The door had to be moved back so that the floor was level either side of the door .. David Smith was the master mind here and I was his assistant. We bought scrap wood from a timber merchant, constructed the porch as it is today and fitted the the rear of this porch Next there came a ramp to give access for the disabled. We built the concrete at the rear entrance door and Tony Hart fix the handrail. .

We are now in the early 1980 s. My wife gave a looking glass for newly built toilets and I used wood from the cases made to transport of household goods from Kuwait. The annex adjacent to the stage at the north eastern corner of the Hall was saturated with dampness. The narrow channel between the outer wall and the concrete council garage’s platform was choked with soil and vegetation. Starting from the northern end I dug and shovelled the earth forward — this was a long job but time was no object. I cut out the ground elder and eventually the channel was cleared well below the damp course. We then painted inside. In two days the damp was back.

My activities were now over. The Committee did run a 12 week Christmas Draw in which Committee Member Emily Smith raised about £700 each year but at last her age caught up so Arthur Dunn took for one season – he made £20 so the next year I tried – I only reached about half of Emily’ s total.

In the following fifteen or more years many good people made enormous improvements especially having a new floor laid, an improved kitchen with a serving hatch installed and so on. For some years Helen Andrews kept things going

From notes produced by Jack Dady, 2nd November 2005

Burial Ground Deeds

Fenstanton Cemetery

The following is a literal transcription of the original.

Thomas Coote, Esq
The Fenstanton Burial Board
Dated 1st July 1875

Conveyance of a piece of Freehold Land situate at Fenstanton in the county of Huntingdon

This Indenture made the fifth day of July in the year one thousand eight hundred and seventy five between Thomas Coote of Oaklands Fenstanton in the County of Huntingdon Coal Factor and Coal Merchant of the one part and The Burial Board for the Parish of Fenstanton in the said County of Huntingdon of the other part Witnesseth that he the said Thomas Coote doth hereby freely and voluntarily give grant and convey to the said Burial Board for the Parish of Fenstanton in the said county of Huntingdon their successors and assigns All that piece or parcel of Freehold Land situate in Fenstanton aforesaid containing by estimation Two roods (be the same more or less) bounded on or towards the north and east by other property belonging to the said Thomas Coote from which the same is separated or fenced off on or towards the South by the Public Footpath leading from Fendrayton to Fenstanton and on or towards the West byland of Robert Odams Together with all ways rights and apputenances thereunto belonging And the reversion and reversions remainder and remainders yearly and other rents issues and profits thereof And all the Estate right little interest use trust possession benefit property claim and demand whatsoever both at law and in equity of him the said Thomas Coote in to or upon the same land or premises and every part therof To have and to hold in the said piece or parcel of Freehold Land or ground hereditaments and premises hereinfore mentioned to be hereby granted and conveyed or intended so to be unto the said Burial Board their successors and assigns To the use of the said Burial Board their successors or assigns forever And the said Thomas Coote doth hereby for himself his heirs executors and administrators Covenant with the said Burial Board their successors or assigns that notwithstanding anything by the said Thomas Coote done or knowingly permitted or suffered He the said Thomas Coote now have good right and full power to grant and convey all and singular the said piece or parcel of freehold land or ground hereditaments and premises to the use of the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns according to the true intent and meaning of these presents And further that they the said Burial Board their successors or assigns shall and lawfully at all times and from time to time for ever hereafter peaceably and quietly enter into and upon and have hold use occupy possess and enjoy all and singular the said piece or parcel of freehold land or Ground hereditaments and premises hereinfore mentioned to be hereby granted and conveyed or intended so to be and have and receive the rents issues and profits thereof to and for their own use and benefit without any lawful let suit trouble eviction interruption disturbance or denial whatsoever from the said Thomas Coote or his heirs or from or by any other person or persons whomsoever having or lawfully or equitably claiming and estate right title or interest out of the same land and premises or any part thereof by from through under or in trust for him the said Thomas Coote or by from through or under his acts default privity or procurement And that free and discharged from or otherwise by him the said Thomas Coote his heirs executors or administrators sufficiently indemnified against all estates incumberances claims and demands created occasioned or made by the said Thomas Coote or any person claiming through under or in trust for him And further that he the said Thomas Coote his heirs and all or any other person or persons lawfully or equitably claiming through or in trust for him will at all times at the costs of the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns do and execute all such acts and assurances for further or better assuring all or any of the said Land and premises to the use of the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns as by them shall be reasonably assured And lastly that he the said Thomas Coote his heirs and assigns shall and will from time to time and at all times hereafter (unless prevented by fire or other inevitable accident) upon every reasonable request and at the proper costs and charges of the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns produce and shew forth or cause or procure to be produce and shewn forth in England or Wales but not elsewhere unto the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns or any of them or to their or any of their Counsel Attorney Solicitor or Agent or before any Court of law or equity or commission for the examination of witnesses or otherwise or occasion shall require a certain Indenture bearing date the thirteenth of October One thousand eight hundred and seventy three and made between Charles Walford and Edward Robert Starkie Bence of the one part and the said Thomas Coote of the other part undefaced uncancelled and unobliterated for the proof manifestation defence and support of the title of the said Burial board their Successors or assigns to the said piece or parcel of freehold Land and premises hereinbefore granted and conveyed or intended so to be And also shall and will from time to time and at all times hereafter (unless prevented as aforesaid) at the like request and at the like costs and charges make and deliver or cause to be made and delivered to the said Burial Board their Successors or assigns or any of them and attested or other copies extracts or abstracts of the same Indenture and permit and suffer such copies extracts or abstracts respectively be examined and compared with the original Indenture either by the said Burial Board their Successors and assigns or any of them or any person or persons whom the said Burial board their Successors or assigns should for that purpose appoint In Witness whereof the said parties to these presents have hereunto set their hands and seals the day and year first before written


Thomas Coote

Signed Sealed and delivered by the within named Thomas Coote in the presence of

Geo Day Sol St Ive, Hunts
John Geeson His Clerk