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ARCHAEOLOGY

Ancient skeletons buried hand in hand in Italy belonged to two men, researchers find

A pair of fifth-century skeletons buried hand in hand and known since their discovery in 2009 as the "lovers of Modena" are both men, researchers reported this week.

Ancient skeletons buried hand in hand in Italy belonged to two men, researchers find
Human bones found at a Roman site in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Unable to verify their sex, scientists had simply assumed the degraded skeletons belong to a man and a woman, possibly lovers who resided in the north Italian town famous for its vinegar.

But a new technique for analysing protein in tooth enamel has left no doubt that this was a same-sex burial.

Exactly why the two men were carefully laid to rest with their hands interlocked remains a mystery.

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Several of 11 other skeletons unearthed at the same burial site showed signs of violent injury consistent with warfare, according to the study, published in Scientific Reports.

“The two 'lovers' could have been war comrades or friends who died together during a skirmish and were thus buried in the same grave,” University of Bologna professor Frederico Lugli and colleagues speculated.

“Alternatively, the two individuals were relatives — possibly cousins or brothers given their similar ages — sharing the same grave due to their family bond.”

It seems unlikely, they continued, that they were buried as a same-sex couple. “Although we cannot exclude that these two individuals were actually in love, it is unlikely that people who buried them decided to show such a bond by positioning their bodies hand-in-hand,” the researchers concluded.

There are at least half-a-dozen other examples of adults buried with hands intertwined reaching back to Neolithic times 8,000 years ago, but all are thought to be man-and-woman couples.


The so-called Lovers of Mantua, discovered in northern Italy in 2007. Photo: Italian Culture Ministry/AFP

“The discovery of two adult males intentionally buried hand-in-hand may have profound implications for our understanding of funerary practices in Late Antiquity Italy,” the researchers said.

The technique used to distinguish sex is based on a protein, called amelogenin, that is expressed differently in the tooth enamel of men and women.

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HISTORY

Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

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Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.

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