These Ancient Skeletons Are Not Entwined Lovers, But a Daughter Embracing Her Mother

New research found that the two women, who were buried in Austria atop a horse, were first-degree relatives who died some 1,800 years ago

This artistic reconstruction shows how the two women and the horse may have originally been placed. Jona Schlegel / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

When archaeologists first excavated a grave in Austria, they assumed the two skeletons—buried in an embrace atop a horse—were a pair of medieval lovers. Now, laboratory analysis has revealed that they were actually a mother and daughter, and their remains are much older than previously thought.

Two decades after the excavation in the Austrian city of Wels (which was once the ancient Roman town of Ovilava), researchers conducted radiocarbon dating and genetic testing on the remains. As they write in a study published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the “rare, combined human-horse burial” dates to around 200 C.E., during the Roman period.

“It’s the first genetically proven mother-daughter burial in Austria in Roman times,” as study coauthor Sylvia Kirchengast, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Vienna, tells Live Science’s Soumya Sagar. “We also disprove a long-held misconception about the kind of relation between the two individuals.”

In Roman times, residents of Ovilava were buried in necropolises outside the town walls. The double burial was discovered in one of the most significant of these graveyards, the “eastern cemetery,” in 2004. Its unusual contents sparked immediate interest. As Live Science reports, one of the interred individuals had their arm around the other’s shoulder, “indicating a close social and emotional connection between the two.”

The grave was excavated in 2004 ahead of construction in the area. Wels City Museum

Based on the grave’s depth and orientation, researchers initially concluded it belonged to Germanic Bavarians, who had occupied the area in the early 600s. The grave’s third occupant, the complete skeleton of a horse, also informed this estimated timeline. As McClatchy’s Irene Wright writes, horses were commonly buried with humans during the medieval era.

The researchers performed radiocarbon dating on all the bones, as well as two golden pendants shaped like a crescent moon and a wheel, and all appear to be from the second or third centuries, writes All That’s Interesting’s Kaleena Fraga. Ancient DNA extracted from the bones indicated the deceased were both biologically female and that they were first-degree relatives—either siblings or a parent and child.

Based on the wear on the skeletons’ teeth and joints, researchers concluded that one died between the ages of 40 and 60, while the other was between 20 and 25. These estimated ages led the study authors to conclude the shared grave held a mother and daughter, with the latter embracing the former.

“It’s very unlikely that two sisters have an age difference of 20 years during those times,” Kirchengast tells Live Science. “So we felt that it’s more likely that they are a mother-daughter pair.”

While the study sheds new light on the humans’ identities, the horse remains a somewhat mysterious inclusion. As lead author Dominik Hagmann, an archaeologist at the University of Vienna, tells Live Science, the ancient women may have been elites of non-Roman origin. “To our knowledge, it’s extremely uncommon for Roman people to be buried with horses,” he says. “They were not a ‘horse-people.’”

Hagmann suspects that instead, the grave belongs to a Celtic culture that endured within the Roman Empire. As Smithsonian magazine’s Brian Handwerk wrote in February, ancient Celts often buried people alongside companion animals like dogs and horses.

“The older skeleton shows signs of frequent horse riding,” Kirchengast adds. “Maybe both women were enthusiastic horse-riders.”

The horse, which appears to have been around eight or nine years old, “may have been in good health at its death,” per the study. The daughter might have had a spinal condition called spina bifida, and her mother may have been developing osteoarthritis. Despite these insights, the three skeletons provided few hints about the cause of death.

“They must have died in one way or another at the same time, otherwise they could not have been buried in this way … at the same time,” as Hagmann and Kirchengast tell All That’s Interesting. “As far as we could determine, there were no signs of violence, so they may have died of some disease or epidemic.”

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