Two 5,000-year-old skeletons found locked in an embrace near the city where Shakespeare set the star-crossed tale of Romeo and Juliet have sparked theories that the tangible remains of a far more ancient love story have been found.
Archaeologists unearthed the two skeletons dating back to the late Neolithic period outside Mantua, just 40 kms south of Verona, the romantic city of Shakespeare's story of doomed love.
Buried between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, the prehistoric pair are believed to have been a man and a woman and are thought to have died young, because their teeth were found intact, said Elena Menotti, the archaeologist who led the dig.
"As far as we know, it's unique," Menotti told by telephone from Milan. "Double burials from the Neolithic are unheard of, and these are even hugging."
Archaeologists digging in the region have found some 30 burials, all single, as well as the remains of prosperous villages filled with artifacts made of flint, pottery and animal horns.
Although the Mantua pair strike a rare and touching pose, archaeologists have found prehistoric burials in which the dead hold hands or have other contact, said Luca Bondioli, an anthropologist at Rome's National Prehistoric and Ethnographic Museum.
Bondioli, who was not involved in the dig, contended that the find has "more of an emotional than a scientific value.