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Scientists: Italian Skeletons, Buried Hand in Hand 1,600 Years Ago, Are Male

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Sep 13, 2019
This stock photo depicts tow man skeletons uncovered at an archaeological site
This stock photo depicts tow man skeletons uncovered at an archaeological site  

Ten years ago, when archaeologists working near the Italian city Modena discovered two human skeletons buried with clasped hands, it wasn't possible to say anything about who they had been. The popular imagination reverted to the heteronormative default, assuming that "The Lovers of Modena," as the intimately buried remains became known, might be a heterosexual couple, similar to other dual burials that had occasionally been discovered.

But science in 2019 has taken a few steps forward compared to 2009, and a new technique that looked at proteins recovered from the tooth enamel of the skeletons has provided at least one clue as to the identity of the so-called Lovers. Researchers say that both skeletons belonged to men, the BBC reports. Why they were interred with their hands clasped is another question, however.

Media reports note that the skeletons were discovered in what is theorized to possibly have been a cemetery for soldiers, based on the presence of other human remains in the immediate vicinity - remains that show signs of violent trauma, such as might have been sustained in combat. While the possibility exists that the two could have been lovers in the vein of the mythical Ancient Greek war heroes Achilles and Patroclus, researchers cautioned that social attitudes at the time - defined by Christian beliefs - could have preempted any such acknowledgment of an intimate relationship between males. Researchers suggested that the two might have been close relations such as brothers or cousins, reports CNet.

But the supposition that early Christian views might have dissuaded same-sex relationships could be the result of more modern bias. At least on scholarly work, the 1994 book "Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe," by John Boswell, argues that same-sex couples were not only accepted, but sanctified by the early church.

Whatever the significance of the men's burial with clasped hands might have been to the people of the time, the find remains unique, noted UK newspaper The Guardian.

"Many tombs have been found in the past with couples holding hands, but in all cases, there was a man and a woman. What might have been the bond between the two individuals in the burial in Modena remains a mystery," The Guardian article quoted the University of Bologna's Federico Lugli, who is the lead author on the paper that announced the finding in the journal Nature.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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