Roman lovers buried on a horse who turned out to be mother and daughter

When a tomb was discovered in Wels, the state of Upper Austria, 20 years ago, the first thing researchers thought was that they had just found an unusual medieval double burial of a married couple and a horse.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
14 May 2024 Tuesday 17:04
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Roman lovers buried on a horse who turned out to be mother and daughter

When a tomb was discovered in Wels, the state of Upper Austria, 20 years ago, the first thing researchers thought was that they had just found an unusual medieval double burial of a married couple and a horse. It has taken two decades for technological advances to correct the experts.

The right arm of one of the individuals lay around the shoulder of the other, indicating a close relationship between them. An initial analysis classified the burial as Bavarian from between the 6th and 7th centuries AD. based on the depth of the tomb and a west-east orientation common in the burials of this Germanic people.

A team from the University of Vienna led by anthropologist Sylvia Kirchengast and archaeologist Dominik Hagmann have carried out osteological studies and DNA analysis to discover that the alleged lovers were much older than previously thought and that they were not a man and a woman, if not a mother and a daughter.

As explained in an article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the tomb could be dated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, at a time when the region was part of the Roman Empire, within the province of Noricum.

The extraordinary tomb was found in 2004, during construction work near the well-known eastern cemetery of the ancient Roman city of Ovilava, an enclave surrounded by a wall with up to 50 towers and which had about 18,000 inhabitants when Caracalla named it Colonia Aurelia Antoniana Ovilabis. around the year 215.

The burial contained the remains of two people embracing and at least one horse. It was these unusual features that initially led specialists to think this was an early medieval double burial. Until modern bioarchaeological and archaeogenetic techniques revealed surprising findings.

The first thing that became clear was that the tomb is 500 years older than previously thought. “In Roman times, graves in which people were buried next to horses were very rare. But what is even more extraordinary is that this is the first burial from Roman antiquity in Austria in which, through genetic analysis, a mother and her biological daughter could be clearly identified,” explains Dominik Hagmann, lead author of the study. .

Genetic analyzes revealed the biological sex and also suggested a first-degree familial connection between the two human individuals. Radiocarbon dating ultimately allowed for more precise temporal classification of the human and horse skeletons.

“The sarcophagus contained two women, probably a mother between 40 and 60 years old and her daughter between 20 and 25 years old,” says the director of the study, Sylvia Kirchengast. Detailed examination of the gold grave goods, which included two wheel-shaped pendants and a crescent moon, further enriched the understanding of the new dating of the site.

The exact reasons for the double burial are unclear. The scientists' main theory is that they both died at the same time from an illness and, according to a tradition from the late Iron Age, were buried together with their horse, whose skeletal characteristics indicate that it may have been ridden frequently.