A new study by the Royal Society of Medicine calls into question the traditional imagery of Jesus' crucifixion. Since there is evidence that the Romans crucified villians in a remarkable variety of ways, there is no way of knowing exactly how Jesus was crucified. Thus the macabre "head-up" depiction passed down to us by tradition may have no basis in the ancient history of criminal torture. As this article sees it, the fact is:
"only one piece of archaeological evidence has ever been found about a crucifixion, mainly because crucified people were not formally buried but left on a rubbish dump to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas, say Masien and Mitchell.
This case entails a young Jewish man, whose inscription on an ossuary, found near Giv'at ha-Mivtar in Israel, suggests his name was probably Yehonanan ben Hagkol.
The clue to his demise comes from an 11.5-centimetre (4.8-inch) iron nail that had been hammered through one of his heels, attaching it to the side of the cross. But there are no signs of any nail holes in the bones of the wrist or the forearm."
The sad tale of Jehohanan ben HGQWL can be seen in more detail here and here at Frontline's From Jesus to Christ series (a reprint of an Expository Times article). In this article, Charlesworth concludes:
"In conclusion, we now have empirical evidence of a crucifixion. Death on a cross could be prolonged or swift. The crucifixion of Josephus' acquaintance who survived should not be projected to the crucifixion of Jesus. The major extrabiblical paradigm for crucifixion is no longer Josephus; it is the archaeological data summarized above. The crucifixion of Jesus, who did not possess a gladiator's physique and stamina, did not commence but culminated when he was nailed to the cross. After the brutal, all night scourging by Roman soldiers, who would have relished an opportunity to vent their hatred of the Jews and disgust for Palestinian life, Jesus was practically dead. I see not reason why the Synoptic account does not contain one of the few bruta facta from his life when it reports that, as he began to stagger from Herod's palace to Golgotha, he was too weak to carry the cross; Simon of Cyrene carried it for him. Metaphors should not be confused with actualities nor faith with history. It is not a confession of faith to affirm that Jesus died on Golgotha that Friday afternoon; it is a probability obtained by the highest canons of scientific historical research."
To be fair, the findings of the RSM are reasonable, as crucifixion imagery does depend more on the visual tradition of the earliest church than say, an actual diagram in the margin of an early manuscript of the Gospel of John. Yet there argument from silence falls apart in the claim that "Given the uncertainty as to exactly how he was crucified, the answer may only ever come if some new archaeological evidence or piece of writing emerges from the shadows of the past, it says."
As far as a "piece of writing," I wonder if the Gospel descriptions count. They each simply use the verb "to crucify," but John 19:33-35 and Luke 24:39 (along with John's parallel) at least put us in the ballpark. After the New Testament We do have reference in Clement of Alexandria to the cross as the "symbol of the Lord" (somewhere in the Stromata), and Tertullian speaks of the cross as a symbol of Christian suffering, and object worth of adoration (Apology). It is also Tertullian that speaks of the cross specifically as sort of an early Christian identity marker (in De Corona). But we don't have any explicit reference to the cross in early Christian artwork until the fifth century, they tended to depict Jesus pastorally or would use lamb imagery when referring to his suffering. We may find reason for this in the criticism levelled against Christians often found in Tertullian's apologies, namely that they were "cross worshippers." Thus we find things like the anchor, trident, and various monograms of Jesus name (such as the "chi/rho") in which the cross is more implicit.
The RSM though might have overlooked a crucial bit of evidence found in the use of the staurogram in some of our earliest manuscripts. This "tau/rho" combination looks remarkably like the cross found again in fifth century artwork. Perhaps it is this unique manuscript marker that serves as a link between eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion and later Christian imagery. I'll see if I can scratch up some images...