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.
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.
Schwartz 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