Can you excavate love?

In archaeology, we cannot directly excavate ideology, cultural beliefs or emotions. We see the remnants of behavior and ideas in the material remains and features in the soil. In the bodies of individuals we can see their behavioral patterns in musculoskeletal markers, what diseases they contracted, the state of their diet, and the artifacts they were given. But, we cannot directly see the behavior that led to the creation and discard of artifacts, the reasons individuals behaved or the motivators that led them, and we do not know the exact social behavior of individuals. We can, however, infer behavior and motivations by using arguments that bridge the static archaeological record to the dynamic behaviors of the past. We do this through analogies; by using modern day examples we can infer past behavior and the mark it leaves on the archaeological record.

Outside of Modena in Italy in the last week, a single burial containing the remains of two individuals, an adult male and adult female, was recovered that dates around the 5th to 6th centuries. The interest in this find comes not from the individuals themselves, but the burial position. They appear to be holding hands, inferred from the intertwining metacarpals and phalanges (the finger bones). From the consistency of the soil around the grave, archaeologists were able to determine that they were buried at the same time. The positioning of the bodies also revealed that while both individuals had their heads facing to the right, the original positioning of the male’s head was straight ahead and the female was purposefully placed to the right to look at the male. This is determined by the structure of the vertebrae in the neck. The couple were buried in a simple trench grave, suggesting that they were not very wealthy. Further analysis of their bones can corroborate this conclusion by analyzing their health and diet. The only artifacts found with the skeletons was a simple bronze ring, and since wedding rings have been a tradition in Italy since the beginning of the Common Era, it is possible that they were married.

Lantern Projects 2007

Another example of this type of burial was found in 2007 outside of Mantua, Italy, dating from 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The double burial contains the remains of a young adult male and female. Like the Modena couple, they were buried at the same time. The hands of each individual are placed on the other, which gives the appearance that they were buried in each other’s embrace. Their heads directly face one another. Unlike the burial in Modena, the Mantua couple had a number of grave goods including flint tools, arrowheads and a knife.

In both of the press releases about these couples there is a focus on the sentiment and the emotional value of the finds rather than the scientific ones. In particular, the archaeologists note that this is evidence of emotion, in particular: love. Elena Monetti, the primary archaeologist at the Mantua excavation argued that “It was a very emotional discovery… From thousands of years ago we feel the strength of this love. Yes, we must call it love.” However,  mortuary practices are known for portraying what people want others to know rather than being a direct reflection of the truth. Another factor that needs to be considered is that people do not bury themselves. As Kristina Killgrove said about the Modena burial: “Whoever buried these people likely felt that communicating their relationship was just as important in death as it was in life.”

The question then, is how can we make statements about the intentions and sentiments behind the burial without directly knowing the behavior that led up to it and without making any assumptions based on our modern conceptions of love? We can use a modern day analogy.

Last week, a couple from Iowa that had been married for 72 years was in a horrible car accident. They were rushed to the hospital, but their conditions were extremely poor. After a couple hours when it was clear they weren’t improving, the husband and wife were placed in the same room with adjoining beds. They joined their hands, intertwining their fingers. Both died within an hour of one another. Their children and grandchildren recognized the special bond between them, noting throughout the article that they did everything together. It was because of this that they requested that the couple be placed in a casket together, and be cremated together following the funeral.

By using this modern day example, we can make better inferences about the past. Given the similar circumstances in the burials, and the timing in death of the individuals, it is probable that if others recognized the love of the couple that they would have honored this in death. We won’t ever truly know whether the ancient and historic burials have the same meaning as the modern one, but creating a correlation between them makes our argument stronger and the probability of our inferences being correct higher.

Works Cited

Lorenzi 2011. Couple held hands for 1,500 years. Discovery News.

David 2007. Prehistoric Romeo and Juliet. MSNBC.

Killgrove 2011. Holding hands into eternity. Powered by Osteons.

Ng 2011. Iowa couple married 72 years dies holding hands. ABC News.

12 responses to “Can you excavate love?

  1. Oh, and I’ll answer the rhetorical question you posed in the title. No, we can’t excavate love, but we can excavate relationships. Analogy is of the utmost importance in archaeology, but analogy only gets you to an understanding of behavior, not emotions. Making the leap from burial position to relationship is easy, making the jump from relationship to emotion is not. People who left no historical records undoubtedly had strong feelings for one another and about certain things – but re-creating people’s mindsets from inert remains isn’t (yet?) possible. We do the best we can, and sometimes, as you suggest, the best we can do is to tell a good story – of lovers united in death as they were in life.

  2. Waht I find interesting is the behaviour of those who performed the burials, they want to perpetuate the relationship between the dead couple.

    Maybe something descendents would do, trying to keep their parents close together even after death.

    Or what a parent would do, knowing how much a daughter or a son loves hers / his partner.

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  4. While I am all in favour of the idea of ‘a love eternal’, I do rather worry when I see archaeological sites interpreted in terms very close to our present day sensibilities. I was wondering if any of the technical reports on either of these examples had investigated or suggested other pathways in which we could have ended up with these particular skeletal configurations? For example, has anyone suggested a Sutti-like ritual where one partner was put to death (either willingly or unwillingly) to accompany the other into the afterlife?
    Thank you for a stimulating and thought-provoking post.
    Robert M Chapple

    • There are many reasons these individuals could be buried together. Using modern day examples is just one way of exploring a potential reason. It is possible that one could be put to death, although we don’t usually see that type of practice for this region. Other possibilities are that they just happened to die at the same time and were buried together. Using analogy helps us create alternative interpretations; we’ll never actually know what happened.

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