Photo Shows Embracing Skeletons of ‘Lovers’ Who Died 2,800 Years Ago?

Claim:

A photo shared in viral social media posts authentically shows two skeletons that were preserved in an apparent embrace for 2,800 years.

Rating:

Mixture

What’s True

Archaeologists did discover the skeletons nicknamed the “Hasanlu Lovers” positioned in an apparent embrace, and the skeletons have been dated to around 800 B.C., roughly 2,800 years ago. However …

What’s Undetermined

Archaeologists are uncertain about the exact relationship between the two individuals, as well as whether they actually died embracing each other, or were positioned that way by someone else after death.

Editors’ note: This story includes depictions and descriptions of human skeletons, which may be disturbing to some readers.

On July 1, 2024, Reddit user u/GeekGuruji made a post in the r/interestingasf**k subreddit featuring a black-and-white photograph of two human skeletons lying side by side in an embrace. The post read, “Discovered in 1972, the ‘Hasanlu Lovers’ perished around 800 B.C., their final moments seemingly locked in an eternal embrace or kiss, preserved for 2,800 years.”

As of this writing, the post had received around 52,000 upvotes and 916 comments. 

The photo appears to have first gone viral in 2013, when it circulated on Tumblr and Reddit with a caption identifying it — incorrectly, as will be explained below — as a “6,000 year old kiss.” More recent posts that feature the photo included a March 21, 2022, post by Facebook page History All Day and a TikTok post made by user @archthot on Aug. 14, 2023. 

The skeletons were indeed discovered lying in the intimate position shown in the photo in Hasanlu, Iran, in 1972 (some sources date their discovery to 1973, the year the find was first officially published in the scholarly journal Iran). Based on the context in which the skeletons were found, archaeologists have dated them to around 800 B.C., roughly 2,800 years ago.

However, much remains unknown about the skeletons, including their relationship to each other and whether they actually died in each other’s arms or were positioned that way after death. For these reasons, we have rated this claim as “Mixture.”

A joint team of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Archaeological Service of Iran excavated the site of Hasanlu, located in northwest Iran’s Solduz Valley, between 1956 and the mid-1970s. Based on the evidence found there, Hasanlu appears to have been a thriving commercial and artistic center until it was destroyed by unknown attackers around 800 B.C.

The two skeletons are believed to have died during this c. 800 B.C. attack, but not much more can be said about their deaths with any certainty. 

In a 2017 article for Expedition magazine, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum, Page Selinsky, an anthropologist who has conducted research on the skeletons, explained some of the lingering questions that surround them. 

One major unknown is how the two individuals died. Unlike the dozens of other sets of human remains found at the site, which were mostly discovered lying in the streets or in the rubble of collapsed buildings, the “Lovers” were found inside a brick-and-plaster storage bin with their heads resting on a stone slab. The two skeletons showed some evidence of trauma, but nothing that could pinpoint cause of death. 

For these reasons, some scholars have suggested that the owners of the skeletons may have climbed inside the bin to hide during the attack on Hasanlu and ended up dying of suffocation — although it is worth noting that many types of fatal injuries would affect only soft tissue and leave no marks on bone.

Another unsolved question, the skeletons’ exact relationship to each other, is touched on in the below video, which was produced by the Penn Museum in 2017.

In the video, Selinsky and Janet Monge, another University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who has studied the skeletons, explain how researchers determined the sexes of the “Lovers.” Although the morphology of the skeletons’ skulls and pelvises were not entirely conclusive, an analysis of DNA samples taken from each skeleton has shown that both skeletons were genetically male. Harvard University geneticist David Reich, whose lab performed the analysis, confirmed the results to Snopes via email.

As Monge notes around the video’s 06:55 timestamp, simply knowing the skeletons’ physical sex does not explain the individuals’ relationship to each other. Monge explains, “They could have been strangers, they could have been family members, they could have been lovers. They could have been in any relationship with each other.”

The skeletons’ exact relationship may never be fully understood. Still, Monge notes in the video, “In terms of something that’s emotionally evocative, it was about as good as it gets in archaeology.”

A Penn Museum spokesperson explained via email that the Penn Museum still takes care of the skeletons of the “Hasanlu Lovers,” which “were taken off display during the mid-1980s for conservation purposes. Today, as part of the Penn Museum’s Human Remains Policy, which prioritizes human dignity and the wishes of descendant communities, no exposed human remains are on display inside the museum.”

 

 

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