Two ancient Roman skeletons found in a tomb together holding hands were both those of men, scientists now believe.
Archeologists originally excavated the pair of remains, known as the "Lovers of Modena," in 2009 at a construction site in Italy. But many press accounts of the time wrongly assumed the couple to be a man and woman. Fox News called it a "tender discovery" at the time.
Researchers in fact did not have the capacity at the time to accurately determine the sex of the skeletal remains, which were poorly preserved in an 11-tomb necropolis.
But a new analysis of tooth enamel reveals the skeletons were both male, as reported by the BBC. The relationship between the men remains unknown.
The European Research Council funded fresh examination of the remains. An abstract explains that protein found in the enamel held the key to revealing the gender of the skeletons.
"We confidently identified the sex of all the individuals considered in this study, using enamel peptides," researchers wrote.
Some archeologists on the original excavation team presumed one skeleton to be female because of its smaller frame, but the new analysis found "a robust marker of the male sex." The new research suggests the male was about 20 years old at the time of his death and demonstrates a low degree of sexualization in dimorphic districts on the body.
That said, the find remains surprising to archeologists. And it's unclear what to make of the hand-holding.
"The literature lacks of any comparable evidence (namely, hand-in-hand males) in terms of analogous geo-chronological contexts," the abstract reads.
"Furthermore, to our knowledge, such a gesture was uncommon if not totally unrepresented in the art of Late Antiquity or, in general, before modern times."
The skeletons are estimated to be about 1,500 years old, buried between the fourth and sixth centuries.
There have been other couples buried together, sometimes in an embrace. The abstract notes the "Lovers of Valdero," a much older couple also entombed in Italy, and a similar set of individuals buries at the Greek site of Alepotrypa around the same era. Archeologists also found a couple buried hand-in-hand within a Romanian cemetery during the Middle Ages.
But in all other cited cases of couples found entombed together embracing or holding hands, researchers definitively concluded a male and female shared the tomb together.
"We suggest that the 'Lovers of Modena' burial represents a voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals," researchers wrote of the same-sex tombmates.
But it's unclear if the commitment was romantic in nature. There's some indication the tomb itself served as a war cemetery, and the men could have fought together. The two could also be family members.
Alas, researchers expressed some skepticism the "Lovers" were in fact lovers at all.
"Although we cannot exclude that these two individuals were actually in love, it is unlikely that people who buried them decided to show such bond by positioning their bodies hand in hand," researchers note. "Particularly, Late Antique social attitudes and Christian religious restrictions lead to the rejection of any hypothesis of deliberate manifestation of homosexual relationship."
If nothing else, homosexuality was outlawed in the Roman era when the men were believed to have lived.
Be sure to follow Advocate on your favorite social platform
DON'T MISS THE OUT100 SPECIAL 3 DAY MARATHON STARTING NOVEMBER 24TH!
Journey through the year’s influential Out100 – the most iconic and long-standing celebration of LGBTQ+ icons and allies – in a 1-hour television special spotlighting the LGBTQ+ people shaping the world today.