The ‘Invisible Dead’ at a macro and micro scale

Since our last blog post, data entry has continued apace and we are now moving towards our final two months of data collection. We have also been busy writing and preparing some initial publications from the project. This started to get us thinking about, methodologically and theoretically, exactly what the ‘Invisible Dead’ Project will have achieved by the end of our two year project.

For both the Levant and Britain there is currently no available data that quantify the evidence for the number of individuals deposited in archaeological contexts for the whole period under study, or quantify the number of sites at which human remains, whether deriving from a formal burial or not, have been found.

Sites recorded in the database from Britain at the time of writing. These cover a wide range of dates, locations and burial contexts

Sites recorded in the database from Britain at the time of writing. These cover a wide range
of dates, locations and burial contexts

The databases or literary reviews currently available for both regions cover only fragments of this remit focusing on individual sites, specific periods and/or regions. One of the most significant outcomes of the ‘Invisible Dead’ Project will therefore be the production of a dataset of funerary/burial data, unparalleled for Britain or the Levant. This will obviously be a stepping stone for future research, something which was enthusiastically recognized at the recent BABAO conference.

One of the most important aspects of our methodology has also been to develop an approach which can work at both a macro and micro scale and with different levels of certainty. Due to the different histories of scholarly research and the nature of the evidence across Britain and the Levant, the approaches to this challenge have had to be slightly different. However, ultimately data from both areas can work at both a micro and macro level. For example, we have already started exploring shifts in Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) represented in the archaeological record over time and space, considering these alongside demographic and climatic reconstructions, population estimates and long-term survey results.

Using the database we can also record features which have not be excavated and thus may, or may not, contain human remains. For example, this image shows possible burial cairns from the Homs region, Syria. By including sites and contexts which have not been excavated we can start to explore what we might be missing through figures that just record MNI by period.

Possible burial cairns from the Homs region, Syria. By including sites and contexts which have not been excavated, or in this case even visited on the ground (the digitised cairns were identified using satellite imagery), we can start to explore what we might be missing.

At a micro scale, we can look at a single burial/disposal context to explore how the human body may have been manipulated, for example whether there is evidence for deliberate disarticulation, burning etc. and determine whether such practices vary between gender and/or sex within a single cemetery or site.

Parietal (skull) fragments found at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire. Early Bronze Age (1900-1700 BC). Courtesy of Andrew Chamberlain

Parietal (skull) fragments found at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire. Early Bronze Age (1900-1700 BC). Courtesy of Andrew Chamberlain. The database allows us to record everything from the level of a cemetery or site, down to a single bone fragment.

With two months of data entry and several more of analysis to go there is still lots of work to be done, at both a macro and micro scale. Luckily, a number of students from Durham are now helping us with data entry, exploring topics, periods and regions which particularly interest them and feed into their current studies. We have also been approached by a number of people reading this blog who have offered their expertise, comments and very generously passed along currently unpublished data sets, so thank you! In the next few weeks, as the students finish some of their data entry, you’ll be hearing a little about their experiences, collecting and collating data as part of the project and some of the ideas and sites they are excited about. In the meantime, please keep your comments, suggestions and new data sets coming in!

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