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The ‘Invisible Dead’ and the Development of Early Human Beliefs about the Body

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Formal disposal of the dead is widely practised today, but this has not always been the case; among many prehistoric societies so few burials are encountered that it appears to have been the exception rather than the rule. When did ‘formal’ burial and cremation become generalised? What significance did this have for the development of religious belief and human self-awareness? Do the recorded prehistoric burials represented in the archaeological record of Britain and the Levant constitute the ‘mainstream’ or are they the result of highly specific selection processes?

The Invisible Dead Project

It was to address these fundamental questions that the project was launched in October 2013 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, and a core team of six Durham archaeologists and anthropologists: Professor Chris Scarre and Dr Mandy Jay (British prehistory), Professor Graham Philip and Dr Jennie Bradbury (prehistory of the Levant), Professor Charlotte Roberts (skeletal analysis) and Professor Douglas Davies (anthropologist and theologian).

The project team has collected archaeological data from two regions – Britain and the Levant – in order to explore the temporal, social and economic contexts of changing relationships between human socio-religious beliefs and concepts of the body and the afterlife. The starting point was the compilation of a database of burial information from the two regions covering the Neolithic through to the Roman conquest (4000 BC-1st century BC/AD).

This data has enabled us to examine large-scale patterns and variations in the numbers of individuals found in the burial record. It has highlighted specific periods in the two regions where there is clear evidence for substantial populations, yet where the dead (as burials) appear to be ‘Invisible’. These ‘big picture’ trends are allowing us to consider how differences in the treatment of the majority of the population may have changed over time. Not only does this question whether inhumation and cremation, comparable to our modern practices, are relatively recent, but it also how suggests how the hitherto ‘Invisible Dead’ may be accounted for.

Durham Conference 2014

The first phase of the project culminated in a conference held at Durham in June 2014. This included papers by the Invisible Dead and by a range of speakers from the UK, Italy, Poland, Israel, Austria, Germany and the US. The papers delivered at the conference were published in 2017 (Bradbury & Scarre eds.: details below).

Recent Progress

Death and Demographics: Comparing Settlement and Burial Records in the Ancient Near East

A successful application to the Tϋbingen - Durham joint Seedcorn Fund, made in collaboration with Prof. Peter Pfläzner of the University of Tϋbingen, allowed us to update the Levant section of the database in 2019 and extend its coverage to include the northern parts of Syria and Iraq.  This phase of the project ended with a Workshop on Mortuary Practices in the Near East, held in Durham in December 2019; a publication is currently in preparation.  A grant application for a project entitled Investigating Inequality in the Ancient Near East through Mortuary Practices and that will build upon the dataset was submitted to the UK-German Funding Initiative in the Humanities in 2021.

Principal Publications

Conference volume

  • Bradbury, J., & C. Scarre (eds.) 2017. Engaging with the Dead: Exploring changing human beliefs about death, mortality and the human body. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Other publications

  • Bradbury, J., D. Davies, M. Jay, G. Philip, C. Roberts & C. Scarre, 2016. Making the dead visible: problems and solutions for “big” picture approaches to the past, and dealing with large “mortuary” datasets. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23, 561-91.
  • Bradbury, J and G. Philip, 2016 The Invisible Dead Project: A Methodology for ‘Coping’ with the Dead", in How to Cope with Death: Mourning and funerary practices in the Ancient Near East (ed.), C. Felli. Proceedings of the International Workshop Firenze, 5th - 6th December 2013, Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 309-336.
  • Jay, M. & C. Scarre, 2017. Tracking the dead in the Neolithic: the ‘invisible dead’ in Britain, in Engaging with the Dead: Exploring changing human beliefs about death, mortality and the human body, eds. J. Bradbury & C. Scarre. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 7-23.
  • Bradbury, J and G. Philip, 2017. Shifting Identities: the human corpse and treatment of the dead in the Levantine Bronze Age, in Engaging with the Dead: Exploring changing human beliefs about death, mortality and the human body, eds. Bradbury, J. & C. Scarre. Oxford: Oxbow, 87-102
  • Jay, M., C. Scarre, C. Roberts, G. Philip, J. Bradbury & D. Davies, 2018. The 'Invisible Dead' Project: the database as a work-in-progress, in Trends in Biological Anthropology: Volume 2, eds. M. Holst & M. Alexander. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 18-27.
  • Bradbury, J and G. Philip, 2020. Mapping and modelling the ‘Invisible Dead’: Reconstructing demographics in the ancient Near East, in New Agendas in Remote Sensing and Landscape Archaeology in the Near East: Studies in Honour of T.J. Wilkinson, eds. M. al-Taweel, D. Lawrence, & G. Philip, Oxford: Archaepress, 63-79

The Invisible Database: Britain

Map showing distribution of recorded burial sites in the Invisible Dead database for Britain

Image above: Map showing distribution of recorded burial sites in the Invisible Dead database for Britain (Mandy Jay)

The Invisible Dead Database: the Levant

Map of the of the Levany

The area being studied by the Invisible Dead project in the Levant stretches from the River Euphrates in the east to the Mediterranean in the west. The southern limit of the study area is marked by the modern border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whilst the northern limits reach the modern border between Syria and Turkey.


From the Department of Archaeology

From other departments