The graphic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" has brought the ancient world's execution method of choice in all its horror to the big screen.
Jesus is the best known victim of crucifixion. But thousands of other Jews were put to death on the cross by the Romans, trying to quash Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land in the first century.
Yet strangely the remains of only one victim have ever been found. He was Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, a Jewish man whose heel bone, excavated by archaeologists near Jerusalem in 1968, still had a nail embedded in it.
"It is the only case ever found in the world where there is indisputable evidence of crucifixion," said Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist who examined the remains of Yehohanan Ben Hagkol.
"We've looked at thousands of skeletons in Jerusalem. Some were decapitated. Others were mutilated. But we've never found another one that was crucified."
"It has to be one of the most obscene forms of death ever invented by man," said Zias of the execution method practiced between 400 BC and AD 400 also by the Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, Carthaginians and other ancient civilisations.
Professor Martin Hengel, a leading scholar of crucifixions from Tubingen University in Germany, said thousands of captured Jewish rebels were crucified by the Romans around Jerusalem during the first century, when Jesus lived.
Crosses dotted the landscape around the city. Zias said that between AD 66 and 702, the Romans at times crucified as many as 500 Jews a day until they quashed what became known as the first Jewish revolt and destroyed the Second Temple.
"Eventually they ran out of crosses and they ran out of space," he said. [more]