Thursday, 9 December 2021

Human Remains Sensationalism: Fenstanton "Crucifixion"


     Digging up people, not things.

Preliminary results of the processing of material from a 2017 excavation have only now been announced by UK archaeologists with the sensational claim that an internment in the 48-grave cemetery excavated on a housing estate produced "Best physical evidence of Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire" (Jamie Grierson, Guardian Wed 8 Dec 2021). Apparently, "The off-site analysis was conducted by Corinne Duhig, a renowned archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, who came to the conclusion that crucifixion was the reason the nail was used". Yeah? I've not seen the osteologist's report, so cannot say whether that really is the way the results of the analysis and interpretation were phrased by its author but... one wonders if this is not some kind of dodgy publicity stunt by the archaeological team to get more post-excavation funding. A photo (edited here) is given in the Guardian article of these human remains. The damage to the bones of the lower legs and missing bones are notable. Post-mortem, one assumes. More to the point no nail seen there. No mention is made in the account of nail- damage to the other foot or the hands/wrist of the other two limbs. Just a single short nail through a heelbone (calcaneus) at a very odd angle - see below. Do they have a photo of this nail-pierced bone in situ? The accompanying skellie-shot in the newspaper has no nail through the right heelbone that I can see.

More to the point, what kind of nail is it and where would it be on an actual body/cadaver? The article quotes David Ingham, project manager at Albion Archaeology, which conducted the dig:

 "The Fenstanton man was found with an iron nail in his right heel bone, the calcaneum, which would have been inserted into the sides of an upright timber. And, while the location of crucifixion is unknown, it is likely to have been elsewhere, possibly by the side of the road".

Really? So, which surface of the heel bone (calcaneus) is penetrated? Here's a 3-d model (or see here). Take a look at that for a moment. And this figure (a right foot) or something like this (X-ray to the right - perhaps among this blog's readers are people who have their own x-rays from ankle injuries they can check this claim with). If we compare this with the photo showing the bone that is supposedly "evidence", it seems to me that something does not tie up. The head of the nail seems to penetrate the proximal surface of the bone precisely where there is a mass of flesh. While accounts suggest that it is driven in "laterally", that is not clear from the photos published so far (though the bone is a bit eroded, and this bone has a very complicated 3d form). More to the point, according to the scale on the photo, that nail is about 6 cm long. Its head appears to be somewhere in the mass of flesh surrounding the Achilles tendon, but its head is some 7mm above the surface of the bone itself, just adjacent to the facets articulating with the talus while the point barely emerges from the distal surface of the bone. At the exit, the nail passes through the thick pad of flesh at the distal surface a little over a centimetre.  Bear in mind that the bones that this element articulate with ("the ankle bone" - here, the talus and distal end of the tibia) also project a little from the side preventing the area below it to lie flat on anything it would be "nailed to", thus further reducing the penetration into the postulated latter of the point of the nail, especially if it is at an angle. 

Where actually is the archaeological evidence that he has that allows the excavator to conclude that the foot was nailed to "the sides of an upright timber" that stood "possibly by the side of the road"? I'll wager there is none. What he's doing is suggesting an interpretation of a puzzling find derived from a written source or sources. This is "text driven archaeology". Archaeology (or forensic osteology) is not used here as a source of information in its own right, but as a source of illustrations for decorating a text-based narrative. Which British archaeologists delight in doing. 

        Fenstanton bone sensationalist interpretation
 of human remains (British Archaeology)

What posture of legs does Mr Ingham's interpretation give us? More to the point, how was the nail driven in? Can we see a reconstruction that accords with the real position of this three-inch nail?  

Does Mr Ingham do any woodwork? If he does, what does he use three-inch nails for? 

Archaeology should not be making sensationalist claims on the basis of a preliminary superficial analysis. There seems to be no osteological report available in the public domain for this find. This story has been reported on the Internet over 30 000  times, all over the world already. Not a single one of these stories shows the trajectory of the nail, or how much it protruded on a living (or dead) body. That seems a pretty crucial issue. It seems everybody citing and quoting it have taken at face-value a "trust-me-I'm-an-archaeologist" statement, and the fact that other archaeologists are repeating it.  I think there are a whole lot of questions that needed to be asked and answered before going public with this. 

The excavation's director additionally claims that “Well it’s the first time a skeleton has been excavated archaeologically that anyone has found a nail in, so it’s not the sort of thing you’re looking for”. This is not true. A number of antiquarian finds (some, as I vaguely recall from Suffolk near Fenstanston) had traces interpreted as the bodies having been buried with nails driven into the cadaver. The only example I could find easily in the Internet was burials excavated at Bourne Park in Kent (Gentleman's Magazine 1850 34, 75). There are more recent texts on this subject, such as Conde (2011) and Quercia and Cazzulo (2016) and there are probably more for the Roman period. As there are on medieval bodies in which a variety of practices such as this were apparently used to "stop the dead walking". A supposed "witch" at St Osyth, Essex also seems to have had her legs nailed together according to finders. Why is this nailed foot not another example of these? 

Even though it is harder and more time-consuming, and does not bring internet-fame so easily, can we have a proper archaeological publication of this material now, instead of interim gossip?

 Quercia, Alessandro, and Melania Cazzulo. "Fear of the Dead? ‘Deviant’ Burials in Roman Northern Italy" Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, no. 2015 (March 2016): 28. 

Alberto Sevilla Conde, 'Non-Conventional Burials in Roman Hispania : Magic and Ritual in the Roman Funerary World' Latomus T. 70, Fasc. 4 (Décembre 2011), pp. 955-976  

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