Cemetery or Sacrifice in Carthage… Again

Tophet of Carthage, burial markers pictured, via Guardian

Tophet of Carthage, burial markers pictured, via Guardian

About a year and a half ago, I posted an article about the Tophet of Carthage. The cemetery was used for over 600 years, between 730 BCE and 146 BCE, and 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”. At this site there are the remains of hundreds of infants that have all been cremated. Since the site has been discovered, there has been debate over whether it is a special infant burial site or a location for infant sacrifice. The reason for the latter has been that historic texts from other contemporary places such as Rome, described child sacrifice occurring in this region. However, it isn’t known whether this is just a form of propaganda or truth.When I last wrote about this case, the consensus seemed to be that it was a child cemetery and that the rumors of child sacrifice were just rumors. In the most recent edition of Antiquity the argument has been reopened. We’re going to discuss both sides of the debate, and see what conclusions can be drawn from it.

The Tophet of Carthage is a cemetery for infants

Schwartz et al. (2010) examined 348 urns containing 540 infant 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 was not 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. 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. Schwartz et al. (2012) 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. Further, the cremation itself and dedication to the local gods found on the grave markers may be a sign of the hope for regeneration rather than a sacrifice.

The Tophet of Carthage is a site for infant sacrifice

Smith et al. (2013) has maintained that the human remains from the Tophet of Carthage are evidence of child sacrifice. First, they argue that the assessments done by Schwartz et al. (2010,2012) to determine age were incorrect because they did not take into account the shrinkage that occurs from the cremation process. This means that they underestimated the ages of the individuals, causing it to appear as normal infant mortality when it was not. Second, based on their assessment of ages of the infants, the mortality curve is not natural. Compared against other child cemeteries in Carthage, this site is a special burial ground for a specific age cohort that was given more expensive funerary rites than would normally be afforded for this demographic. It is therefore argued this is evidence of child sacrifice.

New to this argument is an investigation of broader archaeological evidence by Xella et al. (2013), who support argue that there are multiple lines of evidence supporting that the Tophet of Carthage was for infant sacrifice. First, they note that the cemetery does not represent normal children deaths as there was only one to two burials per year, not consistent with child mortality. Second, the cemetery includes cremation remains of infants and animals, indicative more a sacrificial practices of offerings rather than burials. Third, they argue that the texts which describe Carthaginians as sacrificing infants should be taken at face value. This is due to the fact that the paragraphs detailing this practice do not seem to be part of a biased propaganda, but rather simply note unusual practices. Fourth, the burial markers do not follow normal convention of dedication of a marker to the deceased. Markers within the tophet are dedicating or offering the burial to a specific god, either Baal or Tanit. The markers also have a similar statement on them throughout, that the offering is done in response to an answered prayer or request. This is strong evidence against natural death, as it is not traditionally considered an answer to a prayer. Finally, they argue it is important to consider these archaeological features, not just the human remains, when attempting to address this site (or any site for that matter).

So which one is it?

Context is everything. Interpreting human remains can only be fully completed if one has knowledge of the associated markers, offerings, and broader archaeological site. What I like about the argument by Xella et al. (2013) is that they are looking at the full range of evidence available. Their argument is quite persuasive, and it was refreshing to see a discussion of the wider evidence.. I personally am more willing to believe the less sensational interpretations, but that doesn’t mean its correct. In this case, it does appear that the evidence is pointing towards sacrifice. I hope that more investigation is done into other similar sites to start to interpret patterns and see the broader picture.

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

Paolo Xella, Josephine Quinn, Valentina Melchiorri, & Peter van Dommelen (2013). Phoenician bones of contention Antiquity, 87 (338)

Patricia Smith, Lawrence E. Stager, Joseph A. Greene, & Gal Avishai (2013). Age estimations attest to infant sacrifice at the Carthage Tophet Antiquity, 87 (338)

10 responses to “Cemetery or Sacrifice in Carthage… Again

  1. Very interesting piece. Thanks for discussing.

    So, if this is a cemetery and not sacrifice, how does one account for the lamb and goat kids being buried there too? Seems the two should not be contradictory.

    • Well, it does seem like this is sacrifice, but if it weren’t the animals were thought to be part of the funerary ritual for the infants. Check the Schmidt et al. article for their thoughts on why this is just a cemetery!

  2. On the broader Archaeological case I am quite happy with sacrifice, not sensational, absolutely normal in Prehistory/ protohistory, albeit probably a special occasion when humans are involved.
    After all, Christian “communion” traditions persist with a sacrificial symbolism, however sophisticated our concept of the rite. [transubstantiation].

  3. I would also like to note that only a single ancient author ever recounted stories of mass sacrifice in Carthage and that is Diodorus Silucus and in only a single instance. Plutarch picked up on it and mentioned it in his writing’s but Polybius and Livy both say nothing about it. Livy was a contemporary of Diodorus, and Polybius actually fought in the third Punic war and was present when the city fell to the Romans. To be honest, and I say this as a person studying anthropology and classical history I don’t find the arguments of Quin to be compelling in the least and it seems like an attempt to merely create controversy for the sake of press. This happened with the genetic study of the Etruscans an the Lupa fiasco and in the end even when the ideas were found to be wanting the press never printed anything about later findings that dismissed the new claims.

    I will need to read the new study of course but I think this is more sabre rattling for the sake of sabre rattling.

    • Thanks for the opinion from the classical side- I would check out the article. That’s exactly how I felt going into it, and was a little surprised that the evidence was pointing towards sacrifice. They do cite a number of contemporary authors who argue for sacrifice- though off the top of my head I don’t remember who. Would love to hear your opinion after you’ve read the article!

  4. Hi Katy, I’m Paolo Xella and I appreciated very much both your competence and your balanced analysis… If you want, I’ll send you some recent works of my about this topic… A collective book on “Tophet” is at present in press as special issue of the journal “Studi epigrafici e linguistic sul Vicino Oriente antico ” (english).
    All the best

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