Sorry, but that’s no crucifixion nail.

 

Here’s an attention-grabbing headline for you, courtesy of the UK’s Telegraph:

Nail from Christ’s crucifixion found?

Not to be outdone, USA Today ran with:

Archaeologists find crucifixion-style nail from the time of Jesus

Sounds like quite a find, right? Here’s the story, as reported: A group of unidentified “archaeologists” were excavating an alleged Crusades-era Templar tomb in the ruins of a fort on the coast of Portugal (in the “Principality of Pontinha,” to be exact). At some point, they uncovered three skeletons and their swords, one of which bears an inscription of the Templar cross.

The story gets even more cinematic from there. According to the newspapers, the three dead knights appear to have been guarding an ornate box that contained a worn Roman nail.

Bryn Walters, an archaeologist, said the iron nail’s remarkable condition suggested it had been handed with extreme care, as if it was a relic.

“It dates from the first to second centuries,” he told the Daily Mirror.

While one would expect the surface to be “pitted and rough” he said on this nail the surface was smooth.

That suggested that many people had handled it over the centuries, with the acid on their hands giving it a “peculiar finish.”

Christopher Macklin of the Knights Templar of Britannia said the discovery was “momentous.”

He said the original Knights Templar may have thought it was one of the nails used in Christ’s crucifixion.

I like to think I’m fairly well informed on matters of history and geography, so I was surprised I’d never heard of the “Principality of Pontinha.” As it turns out, there was a good reason.

A quick check of Google maps brings up nothing but a general search leads us to the “Principality of the Pontinha” a “self-proclaimed country founded by Prince D. Renato Barros.” Renato Barros announced his secession from Portugal in a 2007 press release and headquarters his country in the “Fort of São José.” It seems that all three of these entities — the Ilheu, the Principality, and the Fort — are the same thing — a precarious pile of rocks on the side of a jetty off the southern city of Funchal that may indeed be an old fort. It is not an island anymore though it could have been on at one time….

So, boiled down, this is what we have: A man buys an old building, pronounces it a nation, secedes from his country, proclaims himself Prince, conducts archaeological digs and claims to have found three Templar skeletons and a nail that may have been a venerated relic of a crucifixion. And if it was a crucifixion nail it was one of thousands available.

But there’s a much bigger problem with the story: The Telegraph helpfully ran a photo of the “crucifixion-style nail from the time of Jesus,” and it isn’t a crucifixion nail at all. The spikes used in a Roman crucifixion were 8 to 12 inches long, and considerably thicker than the one pictured. Crucifixion nails had to be strong enough to fasten a grown and squirming man to the smooth side of a vertical pole; the dainty four incher the “Templars” were guarding would have been useless.

No, the item in the photograph — whose discovery inspired a minor media storm and breathless headlines on both sides of the Atlantic — is a nicely preserved but perfectly common Roman building nail.

 

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Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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