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Durham University

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Publication details

Bradbury, J. & Philip, G. (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. Felli, C. Pisa: Edizioni ETS. 5: 309-336.

Author(s) from Durham


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.