A Valentine story, of sorts

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

There is no doubt that the photo of the eternally embracing couple will remain printed on my mind just as surely as in the newspaper I’m holding. I’ve read and reread the story, and I’ve cross-checked with other sources. They all say pretty much the same thing.

Human skeletons, almost certainly those of a young couple, are holding each other, lying on their sides so that it appears that their last conscious moments were spent looking into each other’s eyes.

They probably lived during the Neolithic period, 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. They lay in each other’s arms while storms, floods, and war raged above them, but it took an earth-moving machine in 2007, grading for construction of a factory, to uncover them.

It was in Neolithic times that humans were beginning to develop religions, and believed that at death the living spirit within them went to another place. As intrigued as I’ve always been by primitive humanity, I never thought much about whether these people loved each other. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they? I suppose I thought they mated indiscriminately and protected their helpless offspring, and it never occurred to me that they might love each other, mourn their dead, or worry about clansmen who went out to fell a mammoth and did not return.

Archaeologists who are collecting our lovers’ bones will run tests and find out all they can about the pair, and then will reconstruct their positions to be placed in the Mantua's Archaeological Museum. They say that double burials in the Neolithic era were unheard of, with the exception of mothers being buried with their infants.

And these two are not only sharing a grave, but are actually cuddling in it. Their privacy violated, I just hope the scientists grant them dignity when they reassemble their bones.

What happened in this burial ground? That’s what troubles me the most. Think about it. It appears they are lying there waiting for death – but how? If one or both were still alive when sand or ground was thrown in on top of them, could they maintain those positions? Their hands are not near their faces, as one would expect. They don’t appear to be resisting or struggling. Was one already dead and the other entwined himself or herself in close proximity to the other, waiting for death to come?

There were no Pompeii-like volcanic eruptions in this area that petrified people so instantaneously that you could read the expressions on their faces. Nor was there a release of lethal gas like the one in Bhopal, India that killed hundreds in 1984.

Projectile points were found in each skeleton. Did an outraged father and a cuckolded husband shoot arrows that killed them instantly, still locked in embrace? I can’t imagine they’d die at the same moment without separating.

Illness? Poisoning? Their tender hug rules out death so sudden that they never moved again, once struck.

Might their relatives have arranged the bodies thus before they were buried, in tacit approval of their love? Was one lover so distraught at the other’s death that he or she insisted on going along to the Land of the Dead?

It’s a mystery, most certainly, and we may never know the answers to all the questions it raises. Elena Menotti, head archeologist on the dig, says DNA testing will tell whether the pair is related to each other, but discovering the cause of death may not be so easy. Apart from the oddity of the double burial, these skeletons are remarkably well preserved, almost complete. Their teeth are nearly perfect, a finding that tells researchers they were young. (Dentists will love to tell patients it was their well-cared for dentition that attracted such devoted mates.)

Joking aside, they haunt me, these two. Ten or so years ago we visited Mantua and Verona, sites of the most celebrated – and fictional – couple in Shakespearean drama. It’s tempting to call these two “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Someone will, I’m sure. Archeologist Menotti says the grave and its contents are more valuable for their poignancy than for forensics. It’s natural that we should be curious about who they are, why they were buried together and in such an embrace.

“I think it’s a sign of a great love which has transcended time,” Menotti said. “They obviously had strong feelings for each other.”

An odd subject to offer on St. Valentine’s Day, I suppose. But this is at the same instant a heart-warming story and an icy stab of suspense. Something happened here, something human, and 6,000 years later it still touches our emotions.

It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

login to post comments | Sallie Satterthwaite's blog