At Carthage, Child Sacrifice?

Tell-tale remains from Carthage Tophet point to child sacrifice


At Carthage, child sacrifice is believed to have been practiced. Teeth and skeletal analysis of the remains at the Carthage Tophet demonstrates that infants of a specific age-range—under three months old—were most commonly cremated. Photo: ASOR, Punic Project/James Whitred.

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.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices across the Mediterranean world.

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.

Subscribers: 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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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?

Did the Ancient Israelites Think Children Were People? by T. M. Lemos

What Does the Bible Say About Children—and What Does Archaeology Say?

Who Were the Phoenicians?

What Happened to the Canaanites?

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on July 25, 2014.


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21 Responses

  1. Rob Palmer says:

    Same thing with Spain under Fernando y Isabella. When Sefadics had to leave under peril of being made Catholic, what happened to their land? I have a man, Harry Gold (doesn’t sound too Spanish, does he?) who reportedly had much land; he moved up to Ipswich, England. Is my family entitled to damages from the Spanish crown? Harry’s two daughters, Elizabeth and Isabella, angry at being thrown out of Spain, where the family had probably been long-established, ended being treated like subversives by the Anglicans after they visited Geneva, and after instruction, helped establish the Congregational Church in England. There you go: From Hebrew Congregation to the Congregational Church–all to get back at the Anglican Catholic Establishment. Losing their land, they were tired of any Catholic establishment.

  2. Meachem ben David says:

    After the defeat by Rome, what happened to the homes and farms of the Jews in Judea? All movable property (including the Jews) was stolen and sent to Rome but the land could not be so what happed to it – who owned it after the capture or death of the owners? Are the descendants of those crucified still the legal heirs?

  3. pediatric dental center says:

    Wonderful post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

  4. babyj says:

    Excellent finds and comments. High places were selected for sacrifies by 7 nations (Deu Chapter 7) that requoted by major prophets warning children of Israel.

  5. Gary Harper says:

    Dr. David:

    Then there are the cremated remains of all other Carthaginians of all other age groups all over the place? Documentation, please.

  6. Gary Harper says:

    A sacrifice of what you do not want anyway is meaningless. Such libations are not to be poured out in sacrifice. Only the first fruits count.

    The firstborn are always consecrated, and are the possession of the gods. Especially the first-born son, the one who bursts open the womb. Hence the need to ransom.

    This is clearly human sacrifice / infanticide, and was not taken lightly by the populace or the priesthood itself.

  7. Kurt says:

    Child sacrifice:
    In sharp contrast with the Israelites, the inhabitants of Canaan offered their children as sacrifices to their gods, including the Ammonite god called Molech, also known as Milcom or Moloch. (1 Kings 11:5, 7, 33; Acts 7:43) Halley’s Bible Handbook says: “Canaanites worshipped, by immoral indulgence, as a religious rite, in the presence of their gods; and then, by murdering their first-born children, as a sacrifice to these same gods.”
    Se also human sacrifice(Aztecs,Maya)

  8. Cherrie says:

    On a visit to Carthage (Tunisia) some years ago our guide took us around the ancient sites, including the cemetery of children and, using the name “Tophet”, explained that the people, hoping to placate the god’s and save themselves from the Romans, sacrificed their children who were then buried in the cemetery we were visiting – this occurred in the historical period when the prophets of Israel were denouncing such practices: “The people of Judah have done evil … they have set up detestabile idols ….They have built the high places of Tophet … to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command …” (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

  9. Gary Harper says:

    Your children are your “seed”. The term s for both sperm and offspring, when referencing a sire.

  10. Rose says:

    Milcom and Molech are mixed up in various translations of the Old Testament and differ between the Masoretic and LXX translations. Milcom was the God of the Ammonites, while Molech is always consistent with, “fires of Molech”in the Old Testament. There’s no physical evidence of the Bronze Molech, and the stories of child sacrifice to a bronze statue don’t appear in history until after Alexander the Great (300 BCE or so).

    The Torah is very clear that the practice referred to is giving ones ‘seed’ to Molech.

    Leviticus 20:3
    And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy (קדש) name.

    Deuteronomy 23:17
    There shall be no whore (קדשה “holy” feminine) of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite (קדש “holy” masculine) of the sons of Israel.

    If these passages were translated directly out of the Hebrew Scriptures we wouldn’t be able to read the Old Testament to our young children. Nobody would ever mention Temple Prostitution or the practices in the land of ancient Israel recorded by Herodotus and Lucian of Samosata among others. We would much rather tell our children that ‘they’ killed kids, rather than have to get into the whole nasty topic of temple prostitution. As did the Greek translators who invented a god named Molech to smooth over the subject. After all its way easier to speak of killing kids then spilling ones seed.

    Let’s not forget that Christianity is largely a Greek creation. Even Jesus himself reads from the Septuagint in Luke 4:18, as that text is only found in the LXX. And let’s not forget the Greeks had no problem at all exposing their unwanted kids.

    Then consider Mary a Jew who fled to Jerusalem and the first mention of the name ‘Mary’ (in that form) in known history I believe. It doesn’t even matter if this story is true or not as it was believed by the people in that day including Vespasian.

    Josephus, Wars, VI, 3, 4.
    There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; her father was Eleazar, of the village Bethezob, which signifies the house of Hyssop. She was eminent for her family and her wealth, and had fled away to Jerusalem with the rest of the multitude, and was with them besieged therein at this time. The other effects of this woman had been already seized upon, such I mean as she had brought with her out of Perea, and removed to the city. What she had treasured up besides, as also what food she had contrived to save, had been also carried off by the rapacious guards, who came every day running into her house for that purpose. This put the poor woman into a very great passion, and by the frequent reproaches and imprecations she east at these rapacious villains, she had provoked them to anger against her; but none of them, either out of the indignation she had raised against herself, or out of commiseration of her case, would take away her life; and if she found any food, she perceived her labors were for others, and not for herself; and it was now become impossible for her any way to find any more food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself; nor did she consult with any thing but with her passion and the necessity she was in. She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast,

    she said, “O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.” As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and eat the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.

    Upon this the seditious came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready. She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them, and withal uncovered what was left of her son. Hereupon they were seized with a horror and amazement of mind, and stood astonished at the sight, when she said to them, “This is mine own son, and what hath been done was mine own doing! Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself! Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother; but if you be so scrupulous, and do abominate this my sacrifice, as I have eaten the one half, let the rest be reserved for me also.” After which those men went out trembling, being never so much aftrighted at any thing as they were at this, and with some difficulty they left the rest of that meat to the mother. Upon which the whole city was full of this horrid action immediately; and while every body laid this miserable case before their own eyes, they trembled, as if this unheard of action had been done by themselves. So those that were thus distressed by the famine were very desirous to die, and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not lived long enough either to hear or to see such miseries.

  11. Mike McCloud says:

    I’m surprised that there is no reference to a BAR discussion some years ago on the then, latest, translation of ‘Molech’. It was determined at the time, that Molech was not a ‘god’, but, a practice, so, ” Offering to Molech ” would be an incorrect phrasing. Experts in the field had just released a number of more complete, & contemporary translations. I’m not a good article saver & I apologize. I can’t save everything, but perhaps someone at BAR, or elsewhere may more completely recall the issue. As far as I can recollect, it was in ’92-95.

  12. Bill Crane says:

    One of the practices that the prophet Mohammed forbade when Islam came to power in Arabia was ending the common practice of female infant murder (usually burial or simply left open in the desert sand) by pagan Arabs of the 6th century and before. It may have been a common practice across a number nations and tribes of North Africa, including Carthage. The article doesn’t state whether the infant were male or female – this may be an important consideration.

  13. beverly ballard says:

    good article 2 things all same age and animals also there you go

  14. Brian says:

    Where did the assertion come from that Phoenecians and Carthaginians didn’t perform in child sacrifice? This is a commonly known practice that Baal/Molech were worshipped by Carthage. The Roman historians (Livy, Plurarch) mentioned their child sacrifices as a justification for Roman provocation in the First Punic War (whether it was a real justification is up for debate). Prior to the First Punic War Rome had maintained an “Italy only” policy. Carthage had a very difficult time maintaining large armies to combat Roman due to their child sacrifice, to the extent that they had to call in mercenaries and foreign generals (Xanthippus for example). This appears to be shallow research, Carthage was well known to offer their children to Molech.

  15. Mari Collier says:

    This is an old debate. It usually means certain people refuse to accept the fact a pagan or idol worshiping society committed acts that Jews and Christians abhorred. To them, anything that Jews or Christians did was wrong or inaccurate. Facts, writings by others all must wrong.

  16. Rose Stauros says:

    You make me cry.

    The fires of Moleck is a complete misinterpretation and translation of the Hebrew text that started with the Greek Bible or LXX. LMLK is what’s translated as ” of Molech”, and there are hundreds if not thousands of LMLK artifacts all over modern Israel. It just means “of the king”.

    The ancient Greeks always had the practice, it was called “exposure”. They would leave their unwanted babies out in a field for birds or strangers.

    Now you can cry as well


  17. Matt Gilson says:

    Looking more closely, 2 Chr. 28.3 claims it was a Canaanite custom, though Chronicles was drawn together later than Kings and the prophets, which don’t mention this tradition.

  18. Matt Gilson says:

    @Hilary: Yes, I was wondering this too. Once a custom like that is part of a society though, I wonder if some wanted—as well as unwanted—children may have been sacrificed: the more the sacrificial offering means to the supplicant, the greater the chance of being blessed tends to be a pretty universal part of sacrifice ritual, as I understand it. Philo apparently “specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved”.

    Though I suppose we’re all glad it’s not part of our culture, I don’t think we can necessarily judge them, or claim we would never had done that had we been conditioned in the same way, any more than that we would have been one of the few who passed the Milgram experiment. That said, the biblical prophets’ declaration of the horror and folly of this man-made institution in Judah (inspired perhaps by Phoenicia, though there’s no indication in the text of this) of course seems justified.

    It’s also good to have some scholars presenting the case against, regardless of how damning the evidence may seem, though I do wonder how emotionally invested some experts become. It must have been frustrating for the perception of Phoenicians as child-sacrificers to have persisted before the discovery of these cemeteries, while there was no solid unbiased evidence. A good (if macabre) example that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

  19. Hilary says:

    Not disputing that child sacrifice was practised, but an alternative take on WHY it was practised:

    Before modern methods of contraception, virtually every society had a method for “disposing” of unwanted children. Even today “baby hatches” exist in some countries as a place where mothers can dump unwanted infants to be raised in an orphanage or adopted, with no questions asked. In certain EU countries, women have a legal right to give birth anonymously such that the infant is automatically taken into the care of the state and the mother is never identified. And new, grisly evidence has recently been emerging of the casual cruelty and high mortality rates in Irish orphanages of the 20th century.

    It’s widely known that in Sparta and other parts of ancient Greece, unwanted or malformed infants were routinely “exposed” – deserted and left to die. The polite fiction that someone might, just might, come along and save an exposed infant enabled people to pretend this wasn’t really murder, even though the means of dying was particularly prolonged and distressing.

    It seems to me quite plausible that in phoenician society ritual sacrifice, or “passing through the fire to Molech” [as the Hebrew bible describes it] may have been viewed as the most dignified means of disposing of unwanted infants. Or to put it another, if you’re going to kill your child anyway, dedicating his/her life to your god at least shows a degree of respect.

    This is not to defend an utterly abominable custom, but to set it in context.

  20. Sacrpagus says:

    The evidence is indisputable and screaming. The Bible sources should be taken more seriously. Nothing that was written there could not be a common knowledge at the time that it was written.

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