New study reveals peculiar Phoenician sacrificial practice
For millennia, an ancient graveyard lay beneath the waves, waiting to be discovered. The graveyard, located a few miles north of Akko along Israel’s northern coast, however, was not meant for people but rather cultic statues. Originally thought to be the remnants of an ancient shipwreck, the site contained more than 400 small figurines, many marked with the sign of the Phoenician goddess Tanit. Almost all depict a pregnant woman standing on a pedestal with her right hand raised. A remarkable new study proposes the groundbreaking theory that these figurines were votive offerings to the Phoenician goddess made in place of child sacrifices.
During antiquity, much of the Levantine coast, including the northern coast of Israel, was inhabited by the seafaring Phoenicians, a people famously associated in the Bible and historical sources with child sacrifice. Excavations at the Phoenician city of Carthage (in modern Tunis, Tunisia) in North Africa, for example, have revealed hundreds of buried infants, believed to have been burned alive as child sacrifices (although some disagree with this conclusion).
According to the study, however, there may have been an alternative to this gruesome practice. The researchers, from the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University, have suggested that these small statues were used as sacrificial substitutes for children. The mark of Tanit upon the statues and their pregnant appearance is especially notable, as the sign was frequently associated with the Phoenician cults of Tanit and the god Ba’al Hammon. Cultic sites devoted to these gods, like those found in Carthage, often included a Tophet, where infants were burned alive. The researchers believe, however, that such statues were created as an alternative to child sacrifice and were intentionally cast into the sea in hopes that the gods would look favorably upon the offering. The underwater location also suggests that such offerings may have been made by seafarers in exchange for good weather or a successful voyage.
First excavated in 1972, the underwater site was originally thought to be the remains of a Phoenician shipwreck dated to the fifth century B.C.E. Upon closer examination, however, it was discovered that the small statues accumulated gradually over a period of 400 years, from the seventh to the third century B.C.E. As such, researchers now conclude that the site must have been the location of a peculiar cultic activity in which these statues were purposefully deposited in the sea. It remains unclear, however, why this particular location was chosen, as it is not directly associated with a specific Phoenician site along the coast and is, instead, located in the waters between the coastal cities of Akko and Achziv.
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