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Spooning skeletons: Who were these 3,000-year-old 'Romeo and Juliet'?

A man and woman were buried together in this "spooning" position more than 1,000 years ago in Israel. Archaeologists call the couple "Romeo and Juliet."
A man and woman were buried together more than 1,000 years ago in Israel. Archaeologists call the couple "Romeo and Juliet." (Image credit: Bethsaida Excavations Project)

More than 3,000 years ago, a couple at the biblical site of Bethsaida, in Israel, was buried side by side in a spooning position, with the male's arm over the female's body, and the archaeologists who discovered the remains are now calling the couple "Romeo and Juliet." 

Archaeologists think the individuals died at the same time, though they aren't sure what killed the couple, said Rami Arav, director of the Bethsaida project and a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. 

"It is very, very rare to find a couple like this" Arav said at a virtual archaeology conference held by New York University and the Israel Antiquities Authority from Oct. 25 to28. 

Related: In photos: Biblical 'Church of the Apostles' discovered

After studying the skeletons, Arav said the male died in his late teens and the female in her early teen or preteen years. "Apparently, they died at the same time, or at least [were] buried at the same time before their bodies decomposed," Arav told Live Science. "No trauma remains [were] evidenced on the skeletons. We have no clue what killed them."

Despite the intimate burial position of the pair, archaeologists cannot be certain that they were a romantic couple, Arav told Live Science, noting that whoever buried the couple put the bodies into the cuddling position. "The 'spooning position' was made by the people [who] buried them. Perhaps [the] people who buried them knew the story" of the couple, Arav said. 

Who were they?

"No offering or objects accompanied their burial," Arav said. As such, he and his colleagues don't know whether the two individuals were elite members of society or from a modest background. 

From the archaeological remains and surviving historical information, the archaeologists can tell that, at the time the couple lived, people at Bethsaida "were Aramaic," Arav said. "The moon god was perhaps an important god for them, since we discovered two steles [at Bethsaida] with the image of the moon god." 

They know that Bethsaida was the capital city of Geshur, a kingdom mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible, Arav said. The stories told in the Bible claim that Geshur was in conflict, at times, with Israel

Archaeologists would like to extract DNA from the couple's skeletons to learn more about them, but right now, they lack the funds to do so. 

Excavations at Bethsaida have been ongoing since 1987, and the remains of the couple were found about 10 years ago, Arav said, adding that they are the oldest skeletons that the research team has found at the site. The discovery of the couple was presented as part of a paper on Bethsaida that looked at what the site was like when it was the capital of Geshur. Analysis of the site and the skeletons is ongoing. 

Originally published on Live Science

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus writes about archaeology and all things about humans' past for Live Science. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University. He enjoys reading about new research and is always looking for a new historical tale.