After Experts Found Skeletons Holding Hands, Their Analysis Shed New Light On The Mysterious Figures

Image: ARCHEOMODENA via BBC News

A little over a decade ago, an amazing discovery was made at a burial site in north Italy that went on to capture the imaginations of people all over the world. A total of 13 skeletal human remains were uncovered at that time, but a couple in particular were of interest. These two, you see, were found together, clasping one another’s hands.

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These remains had come from two individuals who lived more than a millennium and a half in the past. As such, the image of the pair grasping onto one another was a striking one to behold. After all, it’s unusual for ancient human remains to be discovered hand in hand.

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In no small part due to the unique and arresting image of the embracing pair, numerous global media outlets have reported on the story. And with all this coverage came a nickname for the two skeletons. Based on the north Italian city in which they were found, the pair are now known as the “Lovers of Modena.”

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It’s easy to see how the ancient couple came by this nickname. Indeed, it looked like they’d died together, hand in hand, left to lie together for eternity in the ground. However, such a backstory was based on a number of presumptions that haven’t necessarily stood up to scrutiny.

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In September 2019 – a whole decade after the Lovers of Modena were first uncovered – a study was released in the Nature scientific journal. This work had been put together from scientists associated with both the University of Modena and the University of Bologna. And its contents, as we’ll soon see, have upended previous presumptions about the skeletal pair.

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The discovery of a pair of skeletons holding hands isn’t without precedent, in fact. Elsewhere in Italy, for example, a similar thing was uncovered in 2007. In that instance, the find was made in a community called Valdaro, and it involved a skeletal couple with their limbs wrapped around one another.

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Subsequent research into the skeletons found that one was from a woman and the other a man. They dated back many millennia, having lived roughly 6,500 years ago. Moreover, they were both short individuals by modern standards, and were likely no older than 20 at the point of their passing.

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Different explanations have emerged in an attempt to account for the circumstances that led to the skeletons being found this way. The first – and perhaps the most sentimental – suggests that the pair passed away together, in each other’s arms. However, the more feasible interpretation is that they had already passed away prior to being placed in these poses.

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Researchers working on the bones decided that they’d prefer to keep the pair bound together, just as they’d been found. So, they were brought to the surface together, along with a chunk of the soil within which they were discovered. Eventually, the couple were taken to a museum in the city of Mantia, where they were then exhibited.

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Image: University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Similar discoveries have also been made beyond Italy. In the English county of Leicestershire, for example, an age-old chapel was being excavated in 2014. This building had apparently been in service from around the 1100s to the 1500s. And here, archaeologists found two skeletons with their arms wrapped around one another.

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The experts involved in investigating the chapel have suggested that the site may once have been graced by pilgrims. But as for the skeletons themselves, questions remain. After all, an old graveyard is situated close to where the bones were found. So, why weren’t they laid to rest over there?

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Image: University of Leicester Archaeological Services

One theory has posited that the couple may have been receiving some sort of retribution. Alternatively, it’s been suggested that they’d perhaps been ill at the time of their deaths. In either case, this would have led authorities to separate their remains from other people. Sadly, though, there’s a chance we’ll never learn the truth.

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Vicky Score was a pivotal part of the archaeological investigations at the chapel. “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave,” she explained in a statement. “The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church [nearby]. This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time.”

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Regardless of the true reason for this burial in Leicestershire, the skeletons are undoubtedly a fascinating discovery. The notion of two people bound together for centuries can appeal to the more romantic sides of our natures. And the same, of course, goes for the pair excavated in the Italian city of Modena.

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Situated in the north of the country, Modena is straddled by two rivers called the Panaro and the Secchia. Today, the place is littered with sites of considerable historical value. A cathedral that was started at the very end of the 11th century, for instance, has been enjoyed for its decorative carvings. And 700-year-old bell tower has come to personify the area as a whole.

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The rich historic appeal of Modena was added to back in 2009, when the two skeletons were discovered in the course of a development project. And a couple of years later, news reports started to surface that brought the pair to the attention of the general public. It seems that the idea of two individuals embracing for centuries was extremely appealing.

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Image: Soprintendenza Archeologia dell’Emilia-Romagna

Major news outlets such as Fox News reported that the skeletons – a man and a woman – had been laid down roughly 1,500 years ago. The female skeleton, it was said, had a ring on one of her fingers. And it seemed as if she had been staring towards her companion for all those centuries.

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The head of the dig was Donato Labate, who spoke to Discovery News in the wake of the find. “We believe that they were originally buried with their faces staring into each other,” he said of the discovery. “The position of the man’s vertebrae suggests that his head rolled after death.”

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Labate went on to explain that the excavation could be broken down into three different sections. The lowest – which went down more than 20 feet – was home to ruins that dated back to Roman times. The level around 10 feet down had 11 graves, and the shallowest layer also contained a number of tombs.

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The skeletal pair was discovered in the middle layer. The nature of the burials at this level was quite plain and uncomplicated, which itself had its own implications. Namely, it indicated that the individuals laid to rest there weren’t wealthy. Labate explained, “They were possibly the inhabitants of a farm.”

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This middle layer of the excavation site was eventually lost to time. In fact, it’s been suggested that a river situated close by overflowed on numerous occasions. Over time, this would have caused the layer to become concealed, and then the additional tombs of the upper level would have been constructed at a later date.

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Of course, it was the skeletal couple that captured people’s attentions most from the discoveries made at the site. The story behind the pair was undoubtedly hard to pin down, but experts nonetheless chipped in their two cents. Anthropologist Kristina Killgrove, for instance, suggested to Discovery News that relatives passing away within a short period of time wasn’t all that unusual in past centuries.

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So, the presumption was that the skeletons had belonged to a man and a woman who’d been in a romantic relationship and who died away around the same time. However, the remains themselves – which as we’ve heard had been nicknamed the Lovers of Modena – were dug up in poor condition. Ultimately, then, how accurate could these postulations be?

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Well, a more recent study from 2019 has suggested that initial conjecture was, in fact, wrong. That is, a certain aspect of the story that had been taken as a given was inaccurate. The pair, as it happens, hadn’t been a man and a woman. Rather, they’d both been men.

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This conclusion was reached after scientists from the University of Modena and the University of Bologna studied the specimens. These experts took a look at the proteins that could be found in the teeth of the skeletons. Specifically, they noted a feature in both than can be seen in males, but not in females.

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In essence, this meant that the presumptions about the two skeletons’ gender had been wrong all along. So, a re-evaluation of the circumstances that led to them being buried together holding hands was in order. If they hadn’t been in a heterosexual relationship, then what exactly was the nature of their connection?

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With only limited data available, it’s extremely difficult to figure out why these two men were laid to rest together. Whatever the case might be, though, the implications of the discovery could prove to be significant. After all, whatever their relationship might have been, the circumstances of their burials are unusual.

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As we’ve seen, it’s not unheard of for skeletons to be uncovered together from the same burial plot. Be it in Leicestershire in England or in Valdaro in Italy, examples have been recorded of such a thing. But in these cases, it’s always been the remains of a man and a woman that have been unearthed together.

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The leading writer of the study – which was published in the Nature journal in September 2019 – was Federico Lugli. Associated with the University of Bologna, Lugli spoke with Italian channel Rai News about the unusual nature of the male skeletons. As he put it, “There are currently no other examples of this type.”

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Lugli went on to explaining in more detail that all other cases of skeletons being found hand in hand related to a male and female. “Many tombs have been found in the past with couples holding hands, but in all cases there was a man and a woman,” he said. “What might have been the bond between the two individuals in the burial in Modena remains a mystery.”

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One of Lugli’s colleagues on the excavation project in Modena was Giulia Di Rocco. As a University of Modena professor, Di Rocco was also in a strong position to pass comment on the subject. Speaking to CNN, she said, “We are pretty sure they intentionally buried them together.”

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Di Rocco went on to discuss the possibilities of what the two men’s relationship might have been when they were alive. Unsurprisingly, there were several options to weigh up. “They could be brothers, cousins, friends,” the expert speculated. “They could even be lovers. They are all equally likely, I think.”

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However, as the authors of the Nature study themselves pointed out, the notion that the two were lovers is a challenging theory to accept. “Although we cannot exclude that these two individuals were actually in love, it is unlikely that people who buried them decided to show such bond by positioning their bodies hand in hand,” the researchers wrote. “Particularly, Late Antique social attitudes and Christian religious restrictions lead to the rejection of any hypothesis of deliberate manifestation of homosexual relationship.”

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Indeed, the paper’s authors made sure to back up this point with reference to the laws that would have been in place during the two men’s lifetimes. “Since 390 [A.D.] male passivity was frowned upon by law,” they wrote. “And during the reign of Justinian, sex between males was fully considered a crime.”

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Nonetheless, things might not have been so black and white. You see, while there’s undoubtedly evidence of homophobic laws being in place around the time that the skeletons date from, there are also suggestions that certain Roman leaders were themselves involved in homosexual relationships. Some of these unions, in fact, were widely known about and even celebrated.

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One example is the emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome from 117 A.D. to 138 A.D. Hadrian was said to have made no effort to hide his feelings for his partner, a man named Antinous. Indeed, the ruler even supposedly staged a number of events in recognition of his beloved.

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So, the question of whether the two skeletons in Modena may have belonged to lovers is actually quite complicated. Moreover, there are other theories about their relationship. For example, as Di Rocco explained to CNN, taken alongside the other skeletons which were excavated at the same time, we might deduce that the archaeologists had been working on an ancient cemetery for victims of armed conflict.

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In fact, some of the skeletons laid to rest here seem to have experienced traumas indicative of battle. As the study’s authors wrote, “The presence of several injured individuals within the Ciro Menotti necropolis let us suppose the destination of this place as war-cemetery. In this sense, the two ‘lovers’ could have been war comrades or friends, died together during a skirmish and, thus, buried within the same grave.”

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This hypothesis could be supported by the knowledge we have of the Roman Empire during the period when these people would have been alive. You see, the civilization was beginning to disintegrate around this point. Various tribes were attacking it, and so it’s hardly inconceivable that these people were victims of battle.

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But whatever the true circumstances of the two people’s lives and deaths, it seems likely that the pair had once had a special relationship. After all, they were laid in death together, hand in hand. But whether this meant that the two were lovers, we may never know.

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