Two people buried hand-in-hand have shared a grave for 700 years, eternally entombed side-by-side. Since their discovery, researchers have believed the couple to be man and woman, but a new analysis suggests that the duo is, in fact, two biological males, spurring more questions than answers.
Nicknamed the “Lovers of Modena”, the couple was first discovered in 2009 when archaeologists were excavating the Italian City of Modena. Poor preservation of the bones made it difficult to identify the sex of their owners at the time, but typical burial practices between the 4th and 6th centuries suggest that it was likely a man and woman intentionally buried together in a symbolic gesture of their eternal love.
Cue 2018, when mass spectrometry was used to determine the biological sex of skeletons by analyzing proteins found in tooth enamel. The technique looks at various chemicals in a sample to determine the genes of amelogenin proteins; both males and females have amelogenin-X genes, but only males have amelogenin-Y. Writing in Scientific Reports, scientists at the University of Bologna compared the dental findings of the two skeletons against 14 other known individuals and found that the couple was male-male – a burial practice that has never been observed before.
“At present, no other burials of this type are known,” said study author Federico Lugli in a statement. “In the past, several graves were found with pairs of individuals laid hand in hand, but in all cases, it was a man and a woman. What was the link between the two individuals of the Modena burial, instead, remains a mystery at the moment.”
Similar tombs of individuals hand-in-hand – even embracing each other – have been found around the world across different eras, including the Lovers of Valdaro buried 6,000 years ago in Mantua, a 20-something couple buried in Greece 5,800 years ago, a Neolithic heterogenous couple buried in Turkey, several male-female couples buried together in the Siberian village of Staryi Tartas, and a Romanian duo buried facing each other holding hands (to name a few). But in every case, current research suggests that the couples are male and female.
“In literature, there are no other cases of burials with two men laid hand in hand: it was certainly not a common practice in the late-ancient era. We believe that this choice symbolizes a particular relationship between the individuals, but we do not know which type,” explained Lugli, adding that the notion of the two being a romantic couple seems to be far from the truth. Christian society at the time would likely have “frowned upon” homosexual love. Instead, he suggests that the intentional burial represents a “voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals” who may have been closely related siblings or cousins, or perhaps even soldiers who had died together at war.
The authors note that their work presents the possibility that there may be more than meets the eye in other ancient buried “lovers” throughout history.
“The success of the analysis method we used represents a real revolution for this type of study,” said co-author Antonino Vazzana.” This technique can prove decisive for paleoanthropology, bioarchaeology, and even forensic anthropology in all those cases where the poor state of conservation of the remains of the young age of individuals makes it impossible to determine sex on an osteological level.”
And if you’d like to take a peek yourself, the “Lovers of Mondera” are visible to the public at the Civic Archaeological Ethnological Museum of Modena.