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The Social Life of the Corpse in the Ancient World

This project, directed by Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, examined in new ways the role and place of the dead in the lives of the living in the biblical world by focusing explicitly on the corpse and its agency (impact on social action) in both the Bible and the societies from which it emerged. Recent archaeological and socio-anthropological studies suggest that the corpse was credited with an enduring social value within ‘traditional’ societies. This prompts the question as to whether in biblical studies and related fields of enquiry it is still appropriate to accord the corpse a marginal or negative status in the biblical world.

To address this question, inter-disciplinary perspectives were employed to explore how the agency of the corpse might have reflected or shaped its socio-religious value within biblical societies. In particular, socio-anthropological and socio-archaeological studies were engaged to investigate the ways in which the materiality of the corpse might have rendered it a social agent as both person and object. This radical approach to the corpse in biblical studies better informs and contextualises scholarly reconstructions of the socio-religious perspectives of biblical societies and the literature arising from them. Research in this area tends to be coloured and distorted by the modernist, distancing assumptions about corpses dominant in Western culture and is often undermined by a prioritisation of written material (primary and secondary, ancient and modern) over non-written activities. This project counterbalanced these tendencies by conducting research reaching across conventional boundaries to argue for the valuable social role of the corpse in biblical societies.