Science Notes – Contextual clues and clear eyed science

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The ‘Lovers of Modena’ were originally assumed to be heterosexual romantic partners due to the fact that they were buried with their hands intertwined. However, new scientific research has shown that this is not the case.
The ‘Lovers of Modena’ were originally assumed to be heterosexual romantic partners due to the fact that they were buried with their hands intertwined. However, new scientific research has shown that this is not the case. [Image: ARCHEOMODENA]

For this month’s Science Notes we turn to two papers that recently made the headlines for their surprising findings, which have changed the ways in which we look at traditional archaeological contextual interpretations. The first study, which was recently published in Nature (www.nature. com/articles/s41598-019-49562-7), found that the ‘Lovers of Modena’ – a double burial from the 4th- to 6th-century Ciro Menotti necropolis in Modena, Italy, which earned its nickname because its two occupants were found with their hands interlaced – were actually two men.

Before this, it had been taken for granted that these were the remains of a young, presumably heterosexual, ‘couple’. But the international team, led by researchers from the University of Modena, used the emerging technique of identifying the AMELY protein in dental enamel to definitively determine the sex of these individuals. We first highlighted this technique in CA 337, and since then it has been used in more and more studies to great effect. While we previously focused on its ability to determine the sex of pre-pubescent individuals (a great breakthrough as previously there was no solid morphological way of doing so), this study showed that it is also beneficial when used on human remains that have degraded past the point of being able to assess sex through more traditional osteological techniques.

The original classification of this double burial as ‘lovers’ reflects how we can sometimes incorporate our own cultural biases into our assessments of archaeological contexts. As the authors hypothesise, instead of romantic partners ‘… the two “Lovers” could have been war comrades or friends [who] died together during a skirmish and, thus, [were] buried within the same grave. Alternatively, the two individuals were relatives, possibly cousins or brothers given their similar ages, sharing the same grave due to their family bond.’

While it is not impossible that these individuals were in love, the authors think it unlikely that the people who buried them would have chosen to highlight this as, during Late Antiquity, Christian religious restrictions towards homosexual relationships were in full force, and indeed such relationships were considered a crime by the 6th century.

The second paper that questions well-ingrained contextual hypotheses was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by an international team led by researchers from the University of Huddersfield ( They used ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis to determine that an Iron Age woman, who had been buried in the High Pasture cave on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, was not related to the baby (who probably died at or soon after birth) that was interred between her legs.

The skeleton of the Iron Age woman buried with an infant at her feet in High Pasture cave
The Iron Age woman buried with an infant at her feet in High Pasture cave was believed to be the mother of the child until genetic analysis determined that they were not related. [Image: Laura Sinfield]

This burial is especially interesting as Iron Age interments, particularly in Scotland, are rarely found and evidence for ‘traditional’ burial practices from the period are lacking. The High Pasture Cave woman was found buried on the top of a back-filled cave with large stones placed on top of her. As well as the at-term infant laid between her legs, she was also accompanied by the remains of a foetus that had died at approximately 12-26 weeks’ gestation, as well as a piglet and a puppy buried by her feet.

Radiocarbon dating had indicated that all three human skeletons were largely contemporary with one another, and earlier analysis had assumed that this was a mother buried with her children – a common assumption made in contexts such as this. The DNA told a different story, however. Although the nuclear DNA of the foetus and infant were too degraded to be compared with the woman, enough mitochondrial DNA survived for analysis. The team found that while the foetus and the woman probably shared the same rare haplotype and hence were possibly related, the infant had a completely different haplotype and was not genetically related to the other two.

As the authors conclude, ‘Our genetic analysis shows that a general assumption of mother-child relations within such burials can be misleading, and that genetic analysis can aid the analysis and interpretation of such archaeological contexts.’

Both the ‘Lovers of Modena’ and the High Pasture Cave burial highlight a point we wrote about in the first ever Science Notes back in 2017, when we covered the identification of a possible female Viking warrior using ancient DNA (see CA 333). As emphasised then, by combining scientific techniques with traditional archaeological practices we can begin to rethink how we understand the social organisation and cultural practices of past societies. Although context is still incredibly important in archaeology and should never be dismissed, these new studies highlight the fact that contextual interpretations can be greatly aided with the increased inclusion of scientific techniques.

This news article appears in issue 357 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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