They were discovered in 2009, locked in eternal embrace in a necropolis under what is now the city of Modena in Italy. The two figures had been buried in the same grave during the Roman era between the 4th and 6th centuries. They were holding hands, and there are indications that they were originally looking at each other; one of them was wearing a bronze ring.
The pair became known as the “Lovers of Modena,” earning comparisons to Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s doomed lovers, who lived in northern Italy.
But new scientific analysis has added a twist to the tale. Using a new technique that analyzed the protein on the tooth enamel of the two badly preserved skeletons, a team of researchers from the University of Bologna concluded that the figures were actually two men.
That the two men were buried in this way appears to be extremely unusual. “At present, no other burials of this type are known,” Federico Lugli, the lead author of the study, told the newspaper La Repubblica. Other cases of burials featuring two figures holding hands always involved a man and a woman, he said.
The details of the study were published Wednesday in Scientific Reports, an academic journal published by the Nature Group.
Aside from the new way that the researchers were able to discern the skeletons’ sex even after other techniques had failed, the study notes that “the discovery of two adult males intentionally buried hand-in-hand may have profound implications for our understanding of funerary practices in Late Antique Italy.”
If the pair had been lovers, it would have been unusual in that period for their relationship to have been recognized in burial, Lugli told La Repubblica. “Since the two individuals have similar ages, they could be relatives, such as brothers or cousins,” he continued. “Or they could be soldiers who died in battle: the necropolis in which they were found could indeed be a war cemetery.”
The link between the two men in the Modena grave was a “mystery,” Lugli said.
The two would have lived in the ancient town of Mutina. Their remains were discovered during construction work well over an estimated 1,500 years after they were buried.