In what seems to be rare physical evidence of crucifixion, the method used to kill Jesus Christ according to the Bible, scientists say wounds found on the heel of a man buried some 2,000 years ago in northern Italy suggest he was nailed to a wooden cross before he died.

In 2007, archaeologists were excavating a site in Gavello, located in the Po Valley some 60 miles from Venice, before planned construction of a pipeline when they turned up the skeletal remains of a man lying on his back, with his arms by his sides and his legs outstretched. Unusually for a Roman-era burial, the man had been buried directly in the ground, instead of inside a tomb, and had no grave goods buried along with him.

When they examined the remains more closely, researchers from the universities of Ferrara and Florence noticed a lesion and unhealed fracture on one of the heel bones. In a new study published in April in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, they write that the position and structure of the wounds suggested a metal nail may have been driven from the inside to the outside of the right foot. This means that the man’s feet were potentially nailed to a hard surface (such as a wooden cross) shortly before his death.

The burial discovered near Gavello in the Po Plain. (Credit: Soprintendenza Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape for the Provinces of Verona, Rovigo and Vicenza)

The ancient Romans were not the first people to practice crucifixion, but they used it for centuries as a form of capital punishment, until Emperor Constantine banned it in the fourth century A.D. According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, then under Roman rule, at the beginning of the Christian era, between A.D. 36-30. Though historical writings contain many accounts of crucifixion, the remains found in Gavello represent only the second piece of direct archaeological evidence of crucifixion in history.

In the new study, the researchers write that Romans mainly reserved the prolonged and painful method of execution by crucifixion for slaves, but they also sometimes used it for revolutionaries (like Jesus), foreigners, criminals, military deserters and other outcasts. Genetic and biological tests of the man buried in Gavello showed he was a slim man of shorter stature in his early thirties. His relatively small build suggests he may have been an undernourished slave, and his burial lacked the regular ceremony of ancient Roman funerals—which would make sense if he had been executed.  

“We cannot know if he was a prisoner,” the study’s lead author, Emanuela Gualdi of the University of Ferrara, told Live Science. “But the burial marginalization indicates that he probably was an individual deemed dangerous or defamed in the Roman society.”

Heel bone of a crucified man with the iron nail that pierced their bone, discovered in 1968. (Credit: Zev Radovan/BibleLandPictures)

Prior to the new discovery, the only other direct evidence of crucifixion came from an excavation of Roman-era tombs in Jerusalem in 1968. Inside the heel bone of a man found in one of the tombs, Greek archaeologist Vassilio Tzaferis found a 7-inch nail, still attached to a small piece of olive wood, which researchers concluded was all that remained of the cross from which he was hung.

In the case of the remains from Gavello, the new study’s authors admit that their findings are not as conclusive. The man’s other heel bone is missing, for one thing, and the remaining bones aren’t in good condition.They also have not found evidence that wrists were nailed to the cross, as was commonly done in Roman-era crucifixion. Still, they suggest his arms could have been tied to the cross with rope instead, as is thought to be the case with the man found in Jerusalem.

Due to the poor condition of the bones, the researchers also could not use radiocarbon dating techniques. But the location of the remains within the layers of Roman-era remains led them to reasonably conclude the man was killed approximately 2,000 years ago, placing his death roughly within the same time period as Jesus’ crucifixion.