The Damaged Heel

When the bones of Yehonan ben-Hagkol were discovered in 1968 they caused something of a stir. There wasn't much left of poor old Yehonan - time had not been kind to the contents of the ossuary - but very clear to be seen was his ankle-bone and the rusty iron nail that had been hammered through it.

The conclusion of the archaeologists was that Yehonan had been crucified, a fate which was not entirely unknown for Jews in first century Palestine. What was unusual was for there to be a nail still transfixing the unfortunate man's bones. A close examination of the nail showed that the end was clenched over - Roman nails were made out of soft iron and bent easily - and as it was unlikely that it had been bent deliberately, the suggestion is that as the nail was hammered home, it struck a knot in the wood and bent. Then, when the authorities or the relatives came to take Yehonan down from his cross they could not draw the nail out. In fact, part of the wood was still caught up in the bent nail.

So far so curious. However the real surprise lay in the position of the nail. We are used to seeing pictures and images of Christ crucified, His feet tidily arranged on a convenient protrusion, and the nails hammered through the top of His foot to emerge through the sole. Yehonan's nail, however, was hammered in from the side of his heel and through his ankle-bone to emerge on the other side of his heel.

The Rockerfeller Museum in Jerusalem, where Yehonan's ossuary and his bones are preserved, has two suggestions on the information panel. Either his feet were nailed to the sides of the cross - one foot on each side of the upright beam - or his legs were bent round and nailed to the front of the cross, which would mean that his hips were swivelled in a pose that must have been sheer torture to be forced to endure.

The Romans, of course, would not have cared a jot - might even have preferred to cause as much pain as possible - but it is such an awkward and unlikely pose that I'm afraid that I prefer the first scenario - that Yehonan's feet were nailed either side of the upright beam of the cross.

Curiously, some years ago I was involved in an accident and suffered a severely broken leg. I was carted off to hospital and taken into the operating theatre. When I came round I discovered that my leg was "in traction" - which meant that a stainless steel rod had been inserted through my heel bone and weights were attached to it to keep my leg extended and still. I must admit that as I lay in the hospital bed, the fate of poor old Yehonan kept popping into my mind!

What particularly intrigued me was that I felt no pain in my heel. Now I don't recall how heavy were the weights, but I am pretty sure that were not to be compared to having my entire weight resting on a pin or nail through my heel bone. In addition the pin had been inserted under sterile conditions and the nurses applied antiseptic for the first couple of days. I don't imagine anyone worried about antisepsis for Yehonan and depending on how long he lived, I should think that his heels quickly became infected, if not from the dirty nail and the dirty hands of the soldiers, then from the swarming flies.

However it was interesting that modern medicine and ancient Roman executioners both hit on the heel as the ideal place to insert a pin. A nail through the flesh of the foot might somehow tear loose, but not through the heel.

It's rather the same as the hands. Again, paintings and images depict Jesus with the nails through the palms of His hands, but it is now pretty universally agreed that the thin flesh and skin of the hands would not be able to hold the weight of the individual. Instead the nails were hammered through the wrist, between the radius and ulna bones.

Nevertheless, although it makes a sort of vicious sense for the Romans to pin victims to the cross through wrist and heel, there is always the possibility that Yehonan was in some way special. Perhaps the Romans did ordinarily nail through the foot but treated Yehonan differently because he had got up their noses more than usual. A discovery in northern Italy in May 2018 may be the answer.

Back in 2007 archaeologists cleared a tomb in the Po Valley, about 37 miles from Venice. The isolated burial was discovered by workmen laying a pipeline near Rovigo which would carry methane gas from Venice to Bologna. Unfortunately the bones were poorly preserved and it was not possible to obtain a carbon-14 age. However although there was evidnce of a Bronze Age settlement, the burial was found in later, Roman era strata.

Analysis of the remains of the skeleton indicated that the person was a man, aged 30-34 years. The sex was confirmed by DNA analysis. Only one of the individual's heel bones was preserved, the right calcaneus, and when the archaeologists examined this they discovered a round hole passing through the bone, 9mm in diameter on one side and 6.5mm on the other. This would conform to penetration by a Roman nail which tapered from head to point.

Heel bone of a crucified man
The heel bone of the Po Valley man. The upper image shows the medial (inner) side of the heel bone with the fracture described in the text. The lower image is of the lateral or outside of the bone.

In addition there was a depressed fracture on the inner side, which might correspond to a blow from the hammer as the nail was driven home. That appears to clarify the way in which this person was crucified. One suggestion is that his feet were twisted (as suggested for Yehonan ben-Hagkol) and a single nail was driven through both heels, fixing them to the cross. If that were the case, the damage would surely be to the outer side of the heel (unless it were caused by a blunt nail being drive through the bone rather than by a hammer blow).

The alternative is that the Po Valley man was fastened to the cross with his knees splayed apart and his heels fixed to the front of the cross so that the outside of both heels touched the wood. Not only would this be an extremely uncomfortable position, but it would ensure that the man's groin was exposed (people were stripped of their clothes before being crucified). This might be to satisfy the public - if, for example, the man was guilty of a sexual crime - or it might be to expose such a sensitive area to birds or - if the cross were low enough - animals such as dogs.

It has been suggested that this is not a crucifixion but a "deviant burial", where the individual was nailed to something to prevent his unquiet spirit roaming the earth and coming back to haunt those who put him to death. If that were the case, you would expect that the nails would still be in position, but in fact there was no trace of nails in the burial, so the crucifixion hypothesis is the most likely.

Genetic analysis indicated that the person belonged to a haplogroup that was most common in Europe, but also common in north Africa and the Middle East. It is possible that he was a native of the Po Valley (or not too far away). Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and criminals, though a Roman citizen who deserted his army post might also be crucified. Whether slave or free, almost certainly this person was a criminal, as indicated by the isolated burial, without gravegoods.

This is only the second skeleton to be found with evidence of crucifixion and the fact that both bear evidence that the nail went through the heel makes it highly likely that this was the normal Roman method of crucifixion. Only the position of the legs - splayed, twisted or nailed to the sides of the cross - varied, for reasons which are not clear and may be nothing more than the whim of the particular executioner.

© Kendall K. Down 2018