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The skeletons buried in Italy have been holding hands for around 1500 years. Source: ArcheoModena

Hand-Holding Skeletons Were Both Men… And No, They Were Not Gay Lovers

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Two skeletons intentionally buried hand-in-hand – the so-called ‘Lovers of Modena’ – were always assumed to be male and female. But a new study finds they were both men, raising questions as to their relationship.

Unearthed in Italy in 2009, the two skeletons were found holding hands and both individuals were in a bad state of preservation. Only now, when proteins on their tooth enamel were tested by scientists, has it been revealed that they had both lived in the 4-6th century AD and were both male. 

Researchers at the University of Bologna revealed, in a paper published in the journal Nature, that this is the first time two men have been found buried holding hands . And while some news sources are jumping to the conclusion they were gay lovers, many think they were either cousins, brothers, or twins. An alternative theory is that they might have been soldiers who died in battle, and that the burial site might have been a war cemetery

Some suggest the skeletons - who were of similar age - could be related, such as brothers or cousins. (Nature)

Some suggest the skeletons - who were of similar age - could be related, such as brothers or cousins. ( Nature)

Turning To Tooth Enamel

The papers lead author, Federico Lugli, told Italy's Rai News  that the ‘Lovers of Modena’ were deliberately buried hand-in-hand and that there were “no other burials of this type”. While past excavations have uncovered several graves containing pairs of people laid to rest holding hands, in all previous cases it was a man and a woman, and the researchers say this new discovery might help experts better understand ancient funeral practices in Italy. 

The normal method of determining the sex of ancient human remains is by analyzing their ribs and pelvises, but these two badly preserved skeletons meant that this was impossible. To accurately determine the sexes of the skeletons a 2018 study led by the University of California applied spectrometry and looked at two proteins trapped in their tooth enamel: Amelx, that is present in both sexes and Amely, that’s only found in males. Analyzing the enamel findings of the Lovers of Modena, with 14 other skeletons in a controlled sample, revealed that the pair buried in the necropolis in Italy were both male.

Using a new technique, researchers were able to test the protein on tooth enamel, taken from the skeletons, to reveal the 4-6th century AD skeletons were male. (Nature)

Using a new technique, researchers were able to test the protein on tooth enamel, taken from the skeletons, to reveal the 4-6th century AD skeletons were male. ( Nature)

Openly Gay Lovers In Ancient Italy?

Some suggest the pair of skeletons, who were of similar age, could have been related and were brothers or cousins, but according to the new paper the actual relationship between the pair remains a mystery.

That said, many media outlets are following the all too predictable narrative that the pair were homosexual but The Daily Mail says “it is unlikely” that the nature of their relationship would be recognized so clearly by the people who prepared the burial.

In reality, it is not just “unlikely” that the pair were homosexual, but nearly impossible, if we consider that in 5th century Italy laws forbade gay sex .

In 6th century Italy, the Christian emperor  Justinian I  (AD 527–565) even regarded homosexuals as causal to environmental problems such as “famines, earthquakes, and pestilences”.

Twined In This Life and In The Afterlife?

Accepting that the pair were “not” gay, how did the team of scientific researchers conclude what the relationship of the pair of hand holding males was? It was concluded that the ‘Lovers of Modena’ burial represents a “voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals” rather than a recurring cult practice of the Late Antiquity ,” and that their position reflects such a relationship.

Searching for answers, we might look towards the three philosophical burial requests of Alexander the Great , that he requested from his loyal generals before dying. His first wish was that only his doctors should carry his coffin and secondly, that the path towards his grave shall be strewn with  gold and silver. But his third wish was that “both my hands shall be kept dangling out of my coffin”.

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description from Diodorus. (Tarawneh / Public Domain)

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description from Diodorus. (Tarawneh / Public Domain )

Alexander reasoned that by doctors carrying the coffin it would remind them that they are powerless against death and the gold and silver would let people know that “not even a grain of gold” accompanies one when dead and that by “having my hands dangling out of the coffin, I want people to know that I came empty handed into this world and likewise will go empty handed from this world”.

Might this logic have been applied at the burial of the ‘Lovers of Modena’? If so, might their having been buried indicate that they came into this world together and left together, suggesting they were twins?

The skeletons were discovered in Modena, Italy. (Nature)

The skeletons were discovered in Modena, Italy. ( Nature)

Top image: The skeletons buried in Italy have been holding hands for around 1500 years. Source: ArcheoModena

By Ashley Cowie

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