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The Invisible Dead Project: A Methodology for "Coping" with the Dead

Bradbury, J.; Philip, G.


J. Bradbury


C. Felli


Despite the multitude of burial, cremation and disposal options now available in modern society, current western attitudes to death often bring with them expectations of ‘normality’. There is a general belief that, despite the distances of time and space that separate us, there will still be elements within ancient burial traditions that we can recognise, behaviour that we can easily interpret as being respectful towards the dead. Many of the beliefs that underpin these expectations of ‘normality’ or ‘respect’, draw substantially on Judaeo-Christian traditions, which took shape in the Levant1 during the latter half of the 1st millennium BC and 1st millennium AD. These beliefs differ substantially from those of past societies in the region, as witnessed by references in the Old Testament (Isaiah 65.2-6), which highlight the difficult relationship between the requirements of monotheism and the traditional cult of the dead. The ‘Invisible Dead’ Project, carried out at Durham University between 2012-2014 and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, has sought to chart the long-term development of attitudes to the dead, from c. 4000 BC down to 400 AD (Chalcolithic to the end of the Roman period), through an examination of documentary and archaeological evidence for the form, scale, and significance of mortuary practices. This paper aims to presents some initial results from the project. We will explore some of the emerging trends in treatment of the human body and wider developments in society, economy and religious belief. We also seek to consider the ways in which scholarly attitudes to the dead, as an object of study, have impacted upon the kind of questions asked of the material and the various lenses through which burial has been examined, in particular by researchers working on different periods. As this paper will demonstrate, burial practices and the beliefs behind them differ across space and time, and the treatment of human remains in the past cannot simply be understood as a direct equivalent of ‘burial’ as understood today.


Bradbury, J., & Philip, G. (2017). The Invisible Dead Project: A Methodology for "Coping" with the Dead. In C. Felli (Ed.), How to cope with death : mourning and funerary practices in the Ancient Near East. Edizioni ETS

Acceptance Date Feb 15, 2017
Publication Date Feb 1, 2017
Deposit Date Feb 15, 2017
Publisher Edizioni ETS
Series Title Ricerche di archeologia del Vicino Oriente
Book Title How to cope with death : mourning and funerary practices in the Ancient Near East.
Publisher URL