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Brothers? Friends? Soldiers? Life partners? Researchers don’t know the relationship between two individuals buried side-by-side holding hands. But new findings surrounding the archeological find, called the “Lovers of Modena,” show both were adult males.

Discovered in the Ciro Menotti cemetery in Modena, Italy in 2009, the 1,600-year-old skeletons captivated the public who had widely assumed the pair was a man and woman (partly because one skeleton was slightly smaller than the other). But the sex of the pair was not determined at the time due to poor preservation.

However, according to a study out of the Universities of Bologna and Modena, researchers were able to extract proteins from the dental enamel of both skeletons. The proteins from the teeth contained a peptide found only in men.

“Although we currently have no information on the actual relationship between the ‘Lovers of Modena’ (affective? Kin-based?), the discovery of two adult males intentionally buried hand-in-hand may have profound implications for our understanding of funerary practices in Late Antique Italy,” the study states.

The Lovers of Modena were initially found with 11 other skeletons, some of which showed signs of trauma, likely connected to a violent death during war, according to the study. In wake of the peculiar finding, the researchers note, media speculated the skeletons were those of a man and woman who had been in love.

"There are currently no other burials of this type,” Federico Lugli, an author of the study, tells the ANSA news agency. “Several tombs have been found in the past with couples holding hands, but in all cases it was a man and a woman.”

The study suggests the unusual burial, found in a what is assumed to be a war cemetery, represents a “voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals, rather than a recurring cult practice of the Late Antiquity.”

“In this sense, the two ‘Lovers’ could have been war comrades or friends, who died together during a skirmish and, thus, buried within the same grave,” the study states. 

“Alternatively, the two individuals were relatives, possibly cousins or brothers given their similar ages, sharing the same grave due to their family bond. 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.”

What is likely, researcher Giulia Di Rocco tells CNN, is that they were intentionally buried together. “They could be brothers, cousins, friends," she tells the network. "They could even be lovers. They are all equally likely, I think." 

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