ROME - Archaeologists working on the eve of Valentine's Day carefully began digging up the bones of a prehistoric couple on Tuesday, hoping to keep their 5,000-year-old embrace undisturbed forever.
The skeletons unearthed last week were being scooped out of the earth to undergo tests before going on display in the northern Italian city of Mantua, archaeologists said.
The pair, buried between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago in the late Neolithic period, are believed to be a man and a woman who died young, because their teeth were found intact. Archaeologists have hailed the find, saying that double burials from that period are rare and none have been found in such a touching pose.
"We will work to keep them together," said Elena Menotti, the archaeologist who led the dig. "Removing the turf in one piece will preserve the position and allow us to collect more data on the burial."
The burial was unearthed on the outskirts of Mantua during construction work. The site is 25 miles south of Verona, the city where Shakespeare set the story of "Romeo and Juliet," and the discovery fueled musings in the media about prehistoric love.
Menotti also has said there is little doubt the couple's pose was born of a deep love, but warned it could be impossible to determine the exact nature of their relationship and how they died.
Mantua's archaeological office said in a statement Tuesday that, in some cases of the period, the wife would be sacrificed when her husband died and buried with him. However, the statement said that "at the current stage of research" there was no evidence that this was what happened to Mantua pair.
Alongside the couple, archaeologists found flint tools, including an arrowhead and a knife. Experts plan to analyze the tools along with the earth the couple was buried in to see if there are remains of flowers or plants that might have decorated the bodies, Menotti said.
They will also look at the skeletons to verify their sex and search for signs of illness or other possible causes of death, she said.
After undergoing lab tests, the couple are to be displayed at Mantua's Archaeological Museum.
The discovery was made in a region rich in Neolithic treasures, including some 30 burial sites, all single, as well as the remains of prosperous villages filled with artifacts made of flint, pottery and animal horns.