Even in Death Love Conquerors All!

Two skeletons have been  found in Italy, still holding hands after some 1,500 years in an embrace that would not look out of place in the death scene in Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet.

Two skeletons found in central-northern Italy reveal the couple was buried holding hands some 1,500 years ago. Image-Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell'Emilia-Romagna

Italian archaeologists who excavated the bodies  estimated the skeletons of a man and a woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th centuries.

Donato Labate

“We believe that they were originally buried with their faces staring into each other. The position of the man’s vertebrae suggests that his head rolled after death,” Donato Labate, the director of the excavation at the archaeological superintendency of Emilia-Romagna,

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The woman was wearing a bronze ring and positioned such that she appears to be gazing at her male partner, the archaeologists said.

Excavated by archaeologist Licia Diamanti, the skeleton couple belonged to the 11-tomb necropolis at the site.

Labate said the simple fossa (trench) tombs suggest that the people buried there were not particularly rich. “They were possibly the inhabitants of a farm,” Labate said.

The archaeologists who have seen the remains described the skeletons as poorly preserved due to the nature of the soil they were buried in. The skeletons were discovered during construction work in Modena Italy.

But the dig revealed three layers of scientific interest, with the deepest layer some 23 feet below the surface.  The items of scientific interest there included the remains of Roman-era structures, such as a calcara where mortar was produced. The ruins belonged to the suburbs of Modena, called Mutina in the Roman era  Labate said a middle layer at about 10 feet had 11 burials. He said a third stratification on top of the necropolis revealed seven empty tombs.

The archaeologists believe the area was subjected to several floods from the nearby river Tiepido, which may have caused the male skeleton’s skull to roll away from the female skeleton after burial.  Also, the necropolis was covered by alluvial deposits, and on top of them, another seven tombs were built.

“These burials were empty. Most likely, they were covered by another flood just after their construction. We think it was a catastrophic flood which occurred in 589, as reported by the historian Paul the Deacon,” Labate said.

Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna

The two skeletons will be now studied by Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna.  Gruppioni’s research includes establishing the couple’s age, their relationship and the possible cause of death.

“In antiquity, it is not surprising to learn of spouses or members of a family dying at the same time: whenever epidemics such as the Black Plague ravaged Europe, one member of the family would often die while the family was trying to bury another member,” said Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina.

Another  couple, buried between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, was found at a neolithic site near Mantua in 2007 – locked in a similar embrace.  Mantua is 25 miles south of Verona, where Shakespeare set the romantic story of Romeo and Juliet.

“The two couples are separated in time by five millennia, and both evoke an uplifting tenderness. I have been involved in many digs, but I’ve never felt so moved,” Labate said.

Killgrove added the positioning of the Modena skeletons, looking at one another and holding hands, suggests they may have been a couple.

“Whoever buried these people likely felt that communicating their relationship was just as important in death as it was in life,” Killgrove said.

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is an award winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education and the BCA Medal of Honour.

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