The Story Behind The Lovers Of Valdaro, The Stone Age Couple Locked In An Eternal Embrace

Published June 8, 2023
Updated June 9, 2023

Discovered in a Neolithic tomb in Italy, the Lovers of Valdaro are a pair of skeletons that have been holding each other for 6,000 years.

Lovers Of Valdaro

Wikimedia CommonsThe Lovers of Valdaro were each around 20 years old when they died and show no signs of violent death.

In 2007, a team of archaeologists discovered a tomb near Mantua in the region of Lombardy, Italy. Inside, they found a pair of skeletons lying face to face, their bodies intertwined as if holding each other in a “lovers’ embrace.”

Photos of the skeleton couple quickly circulated throughout the media — and the fact that the Lovers of Valdaro, as they came to be known, were discovered just before Valentine’s Day made the story especially resonant.

For many, the positioning of the bodies called to mind the story of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers who met an untimely and tragic end. As archaeologists examined the Valdaro Lovers, they made a number of curious discoveries.

Firstly, the couple died around 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. Neolithic double burials were a rarity as is, but the couple’s positioning made the discovery all the more unique. Secondly, the young man and woman were each around 20 years of age when they died. There were no indications that their deaths were violent, and their bodies were likely put into position posthumously.

And although it’s impossible to know the true story of who the lovers once were, the image of their bodies locked in eternal embrace and the unique circumstances surrounding the burial has made the Lovers of Valdaro a source of intrigue and speculation for over a decade.

The Discovery Of The Valdaro Lovers

In early February 2007, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Menotti announced that their excavation in the village of Valdaro — near Mantua, Italy — had yielded a remarkable discovery: the skeletons of a man and woman lying face to face, arms and legs entwined.

This unique discovery quickly spread through the media and online as photographs of the skeleton couple were released.

Speaking to The Daily Mail at the time, Menotti expressed her excitement regarding the find, saying, “I have been involved in lots of digs all over Italy, but nothing has excited me as much as this. I’ve been doing this job for 25 years. I’ve done digs at Pompeii, all the famous sites. But I’ve never been so moved, because this is the discovery of something truly special.”

But who were the Valdaro Lovers?

The Theories Behind The Lovers Of Valdaro

For many, photographs of the Lovers of Valdaro told a tragic tale reminiscent of Shakespeare’s most famous work — and in fact, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is even sent to Mantua after slaying Tybalt Capulet in a duel. When he returns to Verona, he learns of Juliet’s “death,” setting in motion the events that leads to both lovers’ demise.

One early theory surrounding the Valdaro Lovers suggested that the man, the body on the left, had been killed, and that the woman had then been sacrificed so she might accompany his soul in the afterlife.

Initial observations supported this theory. The male skeleton was found with a flint arrowhead in his neck, while the female skeleton had a long stone blade along her thigh and two flint knives beneath her pelvis. However, an osteological examination revealed nothing to suggest their deaths had been violent.

“We have found plenty of women embracing children but never a couple, much less a couple hugging — and they really are hugging,” Menotti said. “From an initial examination they appear young as their teeth are not worn down, but we have sent the remains to a laboratory to establish their age at the time of death.”

Valdaro Lovers

Herbert Frank/FlickrArchaeologists believe the Valdaro Lovers were arranged in this position after death.

Further examination revealed that the couple had been around 20 years old at the time of their deaths, and both around five feet and two inches tall.

Still, their circumstances remained elusive. What’s more, historians have found no evidence of a Neolithic settlement in the region of Valdaro. More likely, the area was once entirely covered in marshland crisscrossed by rivers. While this environment was beneficial in preserving the lovers’ bodies for millennia, it offers little insight into the lovers’ lives or why they were buried in such a unique fashion.

Finding A New Home For The Lovers Of Valdaro

A week after the discovery was made, another question arose: What would happen to the Valdaro Lovers? Often when ancient bodies are recovered during archaeological digs, their bones are transported to a laboratory for analysis, and each bone is individually studied to paint a general picture of that ancient person’s life and death.

The Lovers of Valdaro, however, were a unique case. For 6,000 years they had embraced each other. Would they be split up for the sake of science?

Thankfully, Menotti reached a quick conclusion, telling Reuters, “We want to keep them just as they have been all this time — together.” Rather than removing the bones one by one and reassembling them later, archaeologists opted to square out and remove the entire plot of earth where the couple was buried and transport it all together.

National Archaeological Museum Of Mantua

Szeder László/Wikimedia CommonsThe National Archaeological Museum of Mantua, where the Lovers of Valdaro are on display.

The block of earth and the skeleton couple were placed in a wooden box and sent to an archaeological laboratory at the Musei Civici in Como for examination, then later put on display in a glass case a the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua, where they remain to this day.

The Lovers Of Modena, Another Unique Double Burial From Italy

Two years after the Valdaro Lovers’ discovery, archaeologists working in a late antiquity cemetery in Modena, Italy unearthed another pair of skeletons buried hand-in-hand. Unlike the Lovers of Valdaro, these skeletons were in poor condition, which made it difficult to glean certain pieces of information about them, such as their sex.

It wasn’t especially unusual for archaeologists to unearth couples buried together or holding hands, but ten years after the discovery, the “Lovers of Modena” proved to be unusual in a different way: they were both men.

Lovers Of Modena

Modena Civic Archaeological MuseumThe Lovers of Modena, two men buried hand in hand between the fourth and sixth century C.E.

“At present, no other burials of this type are known,” Federico Lugli, a researcher at the University of Bologna who authored the 2019 study that revealed the sex of the skeleton lovers, told Rai News. “In the past, several tombs have been found with pairs of individuals placed hand in hand, but in all cases it was a man and a woman. The link between the two individuals in the burial in Modena, however, remains for the moment a mystery.”

Researchers were able to determine the sex of the skeletons using an innovative new technique based on the analysis of dental enamel. The researchers were essentially looking for the presence of specific proteins within the enamel, AMELX and AMELY. AMELX is present in individuals of both sexes, whereas AMELY is only present in males.

Identifying the sex of the Modena Lovers, however, only raised more questions, particularly about the relationship between the two men.

“The burial of two men hand in hand was certainly not a common practice in late antiquity,” Lugli explained. “In late antiquity, it was unlikely that homosexual love would have been recognized in such an evident way by the people who prepared the burial. The two individuals are similar in age — they could be relatives, for example brothers or cousins, or soldiers who died together in battle. The necropolis in which they were found could be a war cemetery.”

As with the Lovers of Valdaro, it’s pretty much impossible to know the exact details of the Modena Lovers’ lives. Still, both discoveries offer a unique and exciting look into the ancient past and the ways in which ancient humans honored the dead.

After reading about the Lovers of Valdaro, read the story of the Hasanlu Lovers, another pair of skeletons locked in a 2,800-year-old embrace. Or, read the story of two lovers who were separated after surviving Auschwitz — then miraculously reunited 72 years later in New York City.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.