Recent publications survey the evidence at Phoenician tophets
“But with full knowledge and understanding [the Carthaginians] offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds.”
—Plutarch, Moralia II.171C
One of the most debated questions in the study of the ancient world is whether or not the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice—more specifically, the sacrifice of infants. Plutarch and other ancient Greek and Roman authors reported that the Carthaginians vowed their own children to the gods as sacrificial offerings. The discovery of extramural open-air enclosures—called tophets—containing urns of cremated infants and animals seemed to corroborate the practice. The idea that the Carthaginians ritually sacrificed their children had been accepted in scholarship until the 1970s, when a growing number of academics began to doubt the practice.
Now, studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity have responded to recently renewed criticisms—and have provided comprehensive evidence that the Carthaginians really did sacrifice their own children.
Carthage—located in modern-day Tunisia—came to be the most powerful city of all the Phoenician colonies established in the Mediterranean between the ninth and sixth centuries. Carthage began to exert control over settlements in western Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands in the sixth century, developing a maritime empire with its strong naval force. In the mid-third century, Carthage and Rome engaged in a series of fierce battles—known as the Punic Wars—over control of the western Mediterranean. Roman statesman Cato the Elder reportedly ended each senate meeting by saying “Carthago delenda est”—Carthage must be destroyed. By the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E., Rome had indeed crushed Carthage.
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Dissenting belief holds that the Phoenician tophets were merely cemeteries for children. A well-known study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers analyzed the teeth and skeletal remains from the Carthage Tophet and determined that the evidence reflected normal mortality rates of infants in antiquity. The urns contained, so the study concluded, the charred remains of infants who died of natural causes, such as infectious diseases.
Two papers recently published in Antiquity responded to the renewed debates and restated what the scholars believe to be overwhelming evidence for the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. Teeth and skeletal analysis led by Patricia Smith and colleagues from the Hebrew University and Harvard University demonstrates that the evidence from the Carthage Tophet shows a preference for a specific age-range—under three months old—which, moreover, does not correlate with the expected pattern of mortality rates in antiquity. A second paper presented by an international team of researchers led by Paolo Xella of the National Research Council in Rome summarized the abundant textual, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for Carthaginian infant sacrifice.
Oxford researcher Josephine Quinn, coauthor of the Xella et al. study, commented on the value of collaborative research in an email to Bible History Daily:
The publication of the Harvard-Hebrew University team’s excellent work alongside our own international collaboration highlights the importance of bringing all possible information to bear on historical questions, be it textual, material, linguistic, scientific or comparative. No one can become an expert in every field relevant to the study of the ancient world, but we can all learn enough about other disciplines to be able to talk to each other and work together on interpretations that make more than the sum of our individual specialisms.
As the recent papers in Antiquity demonstrate, cross-disciplinary research—from the scientific analysis of the human remains to the consideration of the broader historical context in which they reside—is critical to understanding Phoenician tophets and rituals.
This Bible History Daily article was originally published on February 5, 2014.
The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology by Josephine Quinn
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