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Eternal Embrace Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Jason Urbanus

A rare double burial in Italy evokes romantic images and a line or two from Romeo and Juliet.


Excavations near Mantua, Italy, revealed the remains of a young man and woman buried in an embrace more than 5,000 years ago. (Pasquale Sorrentino)

Archaeologists were suddenly quoting lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Digging in the Italian village of Valdaro--near the city of Mantua, a setting for the famous Elizabethan tragedy--they uncovered a startling double burial. Dubbed the "Lovers of Valdaro" by the media, the pair were huddled close together, face to face, their arms and legs entwined, seemingly in an eternal embrace.

The burial, which dates to the Neolithic period (5000-4000 B.C.), caused an immediate stir among its discoverers. "I am so thrilled at this find," says archaeologist Elena Maria Menotti, who led the excavation. "I have been involved in lots of digs all over Italy, but nothing has excited me as much as this. I've never been so moved, because this is the discovery of something special."

Although it is not the only Neolithic burial to contain more than one person, double burials are rare, and the pose and the positioning of this couple are unique. After an initial examination of the bones, experts determined that the man and woman were no more than 20 years old, and both around 5 feet, 2 inches tall.


Researchers removed skeletons from the cemetery in blocks of sediment, which were crated and sent to an archaeological laboratory. (Marco Merola)

Answering more detailed questions about the pair will be difficult. Excavating any burial is a time-consuming undertaking, moreover, normal excavation of a burial entails documenting and removing each bone for study. In the case of the "lovers," this would have destroyed their unique, intertwined position. In the end, Menotti decided that the two would not be separated, but removed and preserved intact. The block of earth in which they rested was lifted out of the ground with large belts, placed in a yellow wooden box, and sent to an archaeological laboratory at the Musei Civici in Como.

At the lab, the remains have been undergoing several forms of analysis--DNA testing, a 3-D laser scan, and X rays--from which archaeologists hope to learn more about the relationship between the two individuals, their cause of death, and more details about how they lived. While the team awaited results of of the skeletons.

No evidence of a Neolithic settlement has been found in Valdaro, but in antiquity the area was crisscrossed by small waterways and the nearby River Po, making it geographically ideal for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Neolithic Valdaro would have been a very developed community, with easy access to important trade routes and close ties to neighboring populations.

As for the "lovers" themselves, archaeologists may not be able to determine their exact relationship or cause of death, but their discovery is one of the most remarkable finds in Neolithic archaeology. Science aside, for some they will remain forever embracing, a symbol of eternal love that echoes the doomed Shakespearean couple.

Jason Urbanus is a doctoral candidate at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America