Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Crucifixion as a Form of Execution and Public Humiliation

Crucifixion was an ultimate form of punishment for criminals, rebels and captives. It involved tying or nailing a victim's arms and legs to an upright wooden support. This could be a simple tree or else a T-shaped or cross-shaped structure. Painful death from exhaustion and suffocation was the result, but another objective was to humiliate the victim and serve as a warning to witnesses.

The origins of crucifixion are ancient. The best-known practitioners were the Romans who employed crucifixion on a remarkable scale throughout their empire for centuries. The practice was stopped under the emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE.

Dozens, or even hundreds of victims were crucified at the same time. Remarkably, no archaeological evidence of crucifixion had been found. This lead some to believe that rope must have been the only material used to tie victims to the support - as rope would leave no physical marks on human remains.

In 1968, the first and only irrefutable evidence of crucifixion was discovered in a tomb in Jerusalem; a heel bone pierced by an iron nail, with pieces of the wooden cross attached to it.

The ossuary of a crucified man
The ossuary of a crucified man.
Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, exhibited at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Photo © The Israel Museum, by Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

The Ossuary of Yehohanan ben Hagkol

In a burial cave excavated in Northern Jerusalem, an ossuary (burial chest) was found inscribed with the name of the deceased: Yehohanan ben Hagkol. Examination of the bones revealed that the son of Hagkol had been executed by crucifixion.

After he died, Yehohanan's body was taken down from the cross, presumably by family members, for burial in the family tomb. The nail attaching his right foot to the post had been bent, making it impossible to remove without damaging the body. As was customary at that time, Yehohanan's bones were gathered a year later and deposited in an ossuary on which his name was incised.

Yehohanan was 24 to 28 years old at the time of his death. We know nothing about his life or the crime that led to his crucifixion.

Audio - Curator's Tour (Dr. Adolfo Roitman)