Exploration Mysteries: Skeletons in Love

Archaeology
Couple burial found in Siberia. Photo: Vyacheslav Molodin, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Every so often, archaeologists come across a rare sight: skeletons embracing. All over the world are examples of couple burials or “bisomes”. Who were they? What were they to each other? How did they die?

Luckily, modern technology has given us an opportunity to peek into the last moments of these ancient couples, seemingly united in death.

Lovers of Valdaro

In 2007, Elena Maria Menotti and her team of archaeologists uncovered a unique grave in a Neolithic cemetery in San Giorgio, Italy. They found skeletons of a male and female in their early 20s, 1.57m high and dating to 5000-4000 BC. They were buried facing each other with their arms around each other.

Their small grave contained two flint knives, a longer flint blade, and a flint arrowhead, which may either be little tokens for their journey into the afterlife or indications of their cause of death. The first theory is more likely since the bones show no signs of trauma. 

Lovers of Valdaro. Photo: Archeological Institute of America

Researchers believe that the remains were purposefully positioned this way, possibly to indicate the closeness of a husband-wife relationship. Some believe that the woman might have voluntarily sacrificed herself in order to join her husband. Evidence of this practice was found in the “Widow’s Tomb” in Ischia di Castro, dating back to 4000 BC. However, the female in the Widow’s Tomb had trauma to her skull, while this Valdaro female did not. Archaeologists still haven’t determined the cause of death. Nevertheless, the couple was laid to rest again at the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova. 

Lovers of Modena

In 2009, two male skeletons dating to the 4-6th century AD were discovered holding hands. At first, researchers thought that they were male and female, but further analysis proved otherwise. One of the skeletons was very badly damaged, but analysis of remnant tooth enamel peptides determined the sex of both of them. They were two middle-aged men. One wore a bronze ring. 

Lovers of Modena. Photo: ARCHEOMODENA

They were buried face to face in a war cemetery where there are 11 other graves. This suggests that they may have been comrades who died in battle together, perhaps brothers or cousins. These graves were found in “fossas”, which were resting places for poorer folk. Researchers do not entirely rule out the idea that the men were lovers but see it as unlikely. Homosexual relationships were strictly forbidden in the times of Emperor Justinian.

However, one of the men’s heads could have rolled after burial, so that the heads ended up closer together than they originally were. From the position of his spine, and considering the devastating flood that hit that area in the late 6th century, it is very possible that the flood water percolated the soil and moved the head. These so-called Lovers of Modena rest in the Civic Museum of Modena.

Hasanlu Lovers

In 1972, the University of Pennsylvania sent a team of archaeologists to the city of Teppe Hasanlu, in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province. They found a pair of skeletons dating to 800 BC. The left one lay on its side, giving a kiss to the right one, which is on its back. One arm of the right skeleton wraps around its companion.

The pair were in an ancient grain bin, not far from other skeletons. The left-hand figure died in his early to mid-thirties while the other was 20-something. Analysis of their pelvises showed them to be two males, like the Lovers of Modena. 

Hasanlu lovers. Photo: Penn Museum

The story behind their deaths is clearer than with the others. In 800 BC, the Kingdom of Urartu invaded and sacked the city. Many citizens tried to flee the soldiers and burning buildings. Some opted to hide. There is a heavy presence of burnt coal and bricks. The people in this space, including this pair, somehow became trapped and died of asphyxiation. Archaeologists are unsure of the type of relationship they had but are certain that they died together at the same time. 

Embracing skeletons of Alepotrypa

Nestled in the legendary Peloponnese region of Greece, archaeologists discovered one of the oldest graves ever found in that country. In the Alepotrypa Cave, a grave with a man and woman dates to 3800 BC. Although their relative positions are not as clear in photos as some of the other skeletons in this collection, the man is embracing or spooning the woman, with their arms and legs intertwined intimately. They may have been husband and wife. They died in their early to mid-20s and were found near the cave entrance in 2013.

The Alepotrypa Cave is part of the Diros Caves, which served many purposes in the ancient world. People lived, worked, and buried their dead here. It was supposedly one of the many entrances to the underworld. 

Embracing Lovers of Alepotrypa. Photo: Field Museum

Researchers believe that they died together, in that same pose. In other words, they were not positioned that way after death. Funerary goods like urns and beads lay around them. The cause of their deaths remains unknown. It is worth noting that an earthquake in 3200 BC sealed the cave until its rediscovery in the 1950s. The couple and remains of 170 other people spent all this time in the cave, completely untouched.

Pompeii

We could not round off this list without mentioning Pompeii. The 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius left hundreds of grisly examples of terror frozen in time. Archaeological findings have turned up nobles and slaves alike. In November 2020, the thermally shocked bodies of a 30- to 40-year-old man and an 18- to 25-year-old enslaved man were found in a two-metre layer of ash on the outskirts of the city. The older gentleman had a higher status, judging from the remnants of his woolen cloak. The younger, enslaved man had traces of a pleated tunic. 

Man and enslaved man in Pompeii. Photo: Luigi Spina/Reuters

Researchers preserved the remains by filling the bodies’ gaping cavities with liquid chalk. This gave us a cast of their last moments. Many bodies uncovered in Pompeii were writhing, with their hands and feet clenched. The same goes for this pair. Since they were found underground, it is likely they ran here for safety. Were they master and slave? Or just two individuals looking to survive and becoming equals in death?

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About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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