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Making Ancestors: The Politics of Death in Prehistoric Europe 

Introducing the Ancestors Project

Ancestors is a four-year ERC funded project (October 2020-2024), which aims to test alternative models of prehistoric inequality and deathways. It will study social relations in life using osteobiography and explore deathways using funerary taphonomy.


Our team of researchers span the University of Cambridge (UK), Sapienza University of Rome (Italy) and the University of Tartu (Estonia) and brings together the fields of osteobiography, taphonomy, Ancient DNA, bioarchaeology and isotope analysis. Combining these methodologies will make it possible to connect ancient lives and deaths.

The project’s results will provide insight into the ways that inequality affected lives in prehistoric Europe and the role that ancestors played in it.

Photo (right): Dolmen della Chianca, Bronze Age, Bari, photo credits - John Robb


Project Aims

This project tests alternative models of prehistoric inequality and deathways. To investigate social relations in life, it uses osteobiography, reconstructing life stories from skeletons through scientific data on identity, health, diet, mobility and kinship. To understand deathways, it employs funerary taphonomy -- studying human skeletons in detail to understand the ritual actions performed upon/with them.


Combining osteobiography and taphonomy allows us to connect ancient lives and deaths. Peninsular Italy provides a substantial test sequence typical of much of Europe. For each of three key periods (Neolithic, 6000-4000 BC; Final Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, 4000-1800 BC; Middle Bronze Age to Iron Age, 1800-600 BC), 200+ individuals will be analysed.

The results will allow us to evaluate for the first time how inequality affected lives in prehistoric Europe and what role ancestors played in it.

Photo (left): Dr Jess Thompson, Bioarchaeology Laboratory of the Museo delle Civiltà, Rome, June 2021

Theoretical Issues

How did politics and inequality work in prehistoric Europe? Traditionally, politics has been seen in terms of discrete political ranks identified through differential treatment of individual burials. But burial treatment rarely relates to status so directly; the dead serve many different political roles.

Inequality in pre-state groups rarely consists of clear strata; inequality and equality exist in tension within groups. Inequality may have been present throughout European prehistory, but manifest situationally through differential life chances, kinship, ritual or ancestorhood, rather than overtly through political command, wealth or identity.

Ritual and deathways were central to prehistoric societies. But ancestors don’t just happen: they are made, through ritual actions performed upon chosen individuals. Who became an ancestor, and how and why? Our project looks for variation in the afterlives, and asks how (or if) it correlated with people’s backstories, the lives they led, the work they did, the foods they ate, the life-risks they ran, the relations they had, the places they came from?

Photo (right): Sofia Panella, Bioarchaeology Laboratory of the Museo delle Civiltà, Rome, June 2021

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Contact Us

Ancestors Project 

McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 

Downing Street 
Cambridge CB2 3ER 

This website is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No.885137).

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