This Bible History Daily article was originally published in July 2014. It has been updated.—Ed.
The Bible speaks of Judahites who sacrificed their children to Molech in Jerusalem’s Ben Hinnom Valley; the practice was forbidden and considered abominable (Jeremiah 32:35; Leviticus 18:21; 2 Chronicles 28:3). While no evidence of child sacrifice has been uncovered in the Hinnom Valley, scholars today debate whether child sacrifice was practiced at Phoenician sites in the western Mediterranean. The debate is centered on the Carthage Tophet, or open-air enclosure containing the burials of infants, in modern-day Tunisia.
Was child sacrifice really practiced at ancient Carthage? In “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Patricia Smith discusses the research she and her team conducted on the cremated remains from the Carthage Tophet.
Several sources attest to the practice of child sacrifice at Carthage. Lawrence E. Stager and Joseph A. Greene describe the evidence in the November/December 2000 issue of Archaeology Odyssey:
Classical authors and Biblical prophets charge the Phoenicians with the practice. Stelae associated with burial urns found at Carthage bear decorations alluding to sacrifice and inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. Urns buried beneath these stelae contain remains of children (and sometimes of animals) who were cremated as described in the sources or implied by the inscriptions.
Despite the evidence suggesting that the Carthaginians really did practice child sacrifice, some researchers have contended that such rituals did not occur at Carthage—or at any other Phoenician site. The Carthage Tophet, according to one study, was merely an infant cemetery.
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BAR author Patricia Smith and her research team studied the incinerated remains in 342 urns from the Carthage Tophet. The majority of the remains belonged to infants, though some contained young animals, mostly sheep and goats. An analysis of the teeth and skeletal remains from these urns revealed that most of the infants were one to two months old, a result that does not correspond to the expected pattern of mortality rates in antiquity. The findings demonstrate that a specific age range—under three months old—of infant death was over-represented at Carthage, suggesting that children under the age of three months did not die from natural causes but from something else. That something else, as the literary and epigraphic evidence indicate, is likely the practice of child sacrifice at Carthage.
To learn more about the scientific analysis conducted by Patricia Smith and her research team, read the full article “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” by Patricia Smith in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
BAS Library Members: Read “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” by Patricia Smith as it appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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This Bible History Daily article was originally published on July 25, 2014.