Ancient Baby Graveyard or Infant Sacrifice Site?

Tophet of Carthage, via LiveScience

The Tophet of Carthage, an infant cremation burial ground, has been a highly debated site for over a thousand years, and only in the past decade has it come under archaeological scrutiny. Historical sources from Jewish and Christian scriptures refer to it as a place of child sacrifice. Kleitarchos, in the 3rd c. BCE, described Carthaginians throwing live infants onto a pyre. Diodorus Siculus, a Roman author, described the sacrifice of upper class children to the deity Baal in 310 BCE at this location. These were later elaborated by 19th century authors to include descriptions of fire pits in the form of Baal, with metal grates that tipped the sacrificial infants into the pit. These offerings appeased the gods. There is also evidence that small animals, such as lambs or kids, were sacrificed there in place of children. Until recently, it was argued that there wasn’t enough archaeological evidence to either support or dispute this claim.

A study by Schwartz et al. (2010) examines the remains from the site and makes a strong argument against these texts. The Tophet of Carthage is located near the ruins of the North African ancient city of Carthage, which is now found in a suburb of Tunis. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE during the Punic Wars. The cemetery itself was used for over 600 years, between 730 BCE and 146 BCE, with three distinct periods of use. There are no adult graves found at the site, only those of infants, lambs, and goat kids. The grave markers all have dedications to either Baal or Tanit, the patron gods of Carthage. The designation of the word tophet to the site is in reference to the Hebrew word topheth, which means “place of burning”. The grave markers are argued to be evidence that the children were meant as offerings, further supporting the conclusion of sacrifice.

In order to test these arguments, Schwartz et al. (2010) examined 348 urns containing 540 individuals, from the Tophet of Carthage. They analyzed tooth formation, enamel histology, cranial and postcranial metrics, and the potential effects of heat-induced bone shrinkage that might cause bias in interpretation. The patterns of charring and bone coloring suggest that cremation wasn’t complete, and pyres were fairly small and irregular. Based on the analysis of the dentition (both the size of teeth and the formation of a natal line from the stress of birth) suggests that most of the individuals found at the site were prenatal. This means that they died prior to birth either as stillbirth or spontaneous abortion. The curve of age they found is consistent with normal infant mortality.

Urn from Tophet of Carthage, via Pitt University

A study following this, by Smith et al. (2011) argued that the measures used by Schwartz et al. (2010) would not give the appropriate age due to the problems associated with interpreting cremated teeth. When teeth are exposed to heat they will shrink and warp, and may even remove the evidence of the natal line. They argue instead that the sample consists of primarily older individuals, therefore supporting a conclusion of sacrifice because it is inconsistent with normal statistics for infant mortality. Shwartz et al. (2012) however note that they did account for shrinking, and the level of shrinking that Smith et al. (2011) argue for is not possible. Further, the documentary and inscription evidence used by Smith et al. (2011) to support sacrifice can be interpreted from a number of perspectives and therefore, argue Schwartz et al. (2012), shouldn’t be included as part of the discussion.

The placement of infant cemeteries is special locations is not rare, and still occurs today in some cemeteries. Due to high mortality, many past cultures didn’t view infants as people until they reached a specific age. This meant that they were not included in the normal cemetery. Smith et al. do note that because of this lack of being considered part of the culture until they were older, wood for cremation would not have been wasted on these individuals. Cremation in the past was expensive, so it is likely that it would have been saved for important funerals or sacrifices. However, given that the burning on the individuals was irregular and incomplete, it is likely that there was little wood involved. Further, the cremation itself and dedication to the gods may be a sign of the hope for regeneration rather than a sacrifice. There are too many symbolic and cultural unknowns to determine the purpose of the site, and further research into the broader social practices are needed.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgSchwartz JH, Houghton F, Macchiarelli R, & Bondioli L (2010). Skeletal remains from Punic Carthage do not support systematic sacrifice of infants. PloS one, 5 (2) PMID: 20174667

J.H. Schwartz, F.D. Houghton, L. Bondioli, & R. Macchiarelli (2012). Bones, teeth, and estimating age of perinates: Carthaginian infant sacrifice revisited Antiquity, 86, 738-745

P. Smith, G. Avishai, J.A. Greene, & L.E. Stager (2011). Aging cremated infants: the problem of sacrifice at the Tophet of Carthage Antiquity, 85, 859-874

11 responses to “Ancient Baby Graveyard or Infant Sacrifice Site?

  1. This post is bringing up some old feelings. I went to a college named Carthage, and across the street was an infant/toddler plot separated from the rest of the graves. Some of them even had pictures on them so you could see who it was that was buried there. It’s hard to describe how it felt for me, but it was eye-opening at least.

    If they were burning stillborns, it’s not surprising that some interpreted it as child sacrifice of living ones (on top of possible political/social motives to slander Carthage). In a way it makes sense that they would be offered, if cross-cultural analysis can be of any use here. Fire is a mode of transport for some cultures, and so by burning the body the fire transports the body to wherever (land of dead, to the gods, etc.). If the child was stillborn, then perhaps it needed to return to the gods or the dead to try again and be born properly.

    Pure speculation of course, but I find this sort of thing fascinating.

    • There actually was sacrifice in a number of Mediterranean cultures, but it is more often done in singular events. This repetitive type of burial suggests it was less ritualistic. More likely what we have is Roman and Christian propaganda against them. However it is quite fascinating!

      • 1. Christianity didn’t even exist when the Carthaginians were in power…The article discusses reported occurrences between 700 BC and 150 BC.

        2. The “Propaganda” you refer to by “Christians” are historical narratives in the old testament cannon shared with the Jews, they were recorded by Jews who NEVER mention Carthage but only a pagan god associated with them – baal/molech – and the practices such pagan worship brought about.

        3. The locations of these atrocities mentioned in the bible are geographically isolated from Carthage by thousands of miles, considering Israel’s entire historical context within the biblical perspective takes place in the Middle East (Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Egypt) this makes contact or reference to specific Carthaginian practices even more remote.

        4. When the biblical writers refer to child sacrifice done by baal worshipers they never even as much as infer Carthage but refer to the god(s) of the Canaanites (Israel/Palestine), Sidonians (Lebanon), and Midianites (northwest Arabian Peninsula). With the latest plausible references being those of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel in the early 7th Century BC. – In the infancy of the established Carthaginian empire and references to the “Topeth” referred to in the article.

        5. As mentioned, Diodorus and Kleitarchos wrote about the sacrificial practices of the Carthaginians, themselves adherents to Greek paganism and a host of practices diametrically opposed to Judaism one can hardly call these corroborations of theirs with the Jewish prophets biased or allied conspiracy due to their staunch societal opposition and chronological separation. If anything this satisfies the criterion of multiple attestation quite effectively due to its multiple unbiased accounts from both the Greek and Roman perspective, add to that the Jewish records of other societies that worshiped the same god and the accusation of “propaganda” start looking like very dubious conjecture indeed.

        6. Finally, I would point you the most recent published journal article by Dr J. C. Quinn from Oxford University that once again affirms the historical attestation of Child Sacrifice in Carthage:

        1. University report and abstract:
        http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2014/140123_1.html

        2. Published Journal article available for a very modest fee, fascinating reading and valuable source material if you are interested:
        http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/087/ant0871199.htm

  2. Sacrifice of the first born is a common practice in many societies today. In cultures where women begin giving birth at early age of 13 or so, a large percentage of first birth are sickly or deformed. Because the first born is destined to become the leader of the clan one day, he must be healthy and robust, so the first is sacrificed to insure the health of the second. Two Doctors who have worked with primitive spcieties in South America visited the Tophet with me and assured me that it is not unusual. Also, the first born must be male. If female it is killed. A Korean friend told me she is only alive because she was not first born. “if I was first born, they would have left me on the mountain,” she said. This is Korea today!

    • Thanks for the modern insight! These definitely help with understanding the past, but we can’t assume a correlation and must just use these stories to aid in expanding our range of interpretation.

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