Aging Cremated Infants: The Problem of Sacrifice at the Tophet of Carthage

By Smith, P.; Avishai, G. et al. | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Aging Cremated Infants: The Problem of Sacrifice at the Tophet of Carthage


Smith, P., Avishai, G., Greene, J. A., Stager, L. E., Antiquity


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Introduction

Excavations in the eighth to second century BC 'Precinct of Tanit' in Tunisia have yielded thousands of cinerary urns containing the cremated remains of infants, often surmounted by carved stone markers (stelae or cippi), some of which bear Phoenician inscriptions. Known as the 'Tophet' of Carthage, the findings from this, and other Phoenician colonies that have yielded similar finds, were initially interpreted as evidence of infant sacrifice, a conclusion that has been hotly debated in recent years.

A pivotal issue in the debate is how to estimate the age distribution of the interred infants in view of the effect of cremation on skeletal parameters used for ageing. In this study we have used a combination of techniques (biometry, light microscopy, SEM and serial microCT sections) to establish the age of the infants.

Using tooth length, corrected for shrinkage, we found that the age profile of the Tophet infants peaked between 1 and 1.49 months and differed from that found for infant burials in other archaeological sites or that reported for census data for populations without access to modern medical care. This age profile, as well as the preferential mortuary treatment accorded Tophet infants, supports textual and iconographic evidence that the Phoenicians practiced infant sacrifice.

The site

The Phoenician Tophets lie at the heart of the debate on infant sacrifice (Whitaker 1921; Icard 1922; Richard 1961; Stager 1980, 1982; Benichou-Safar 1982, 2004; Stager & Wolff 1984; Moscati & Uberti 1985; Moscati 1987; Fedele & Foster 1988; Schwartz 1993; Fantar 2000; Stager & Greene 2000; Schwartz et al. 2010). The Precinct of Tanit is the largest Tophet, and functioned from the eighth century BC until the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BC (Stager 1982). Numerous excavations have been carried out at this site, yielding the cremated remains of thousands of human infants and also immature ovicaprines or birds, interred in cinerary urns within a restricted 'sacred' area. Many of the urns were surmounted by carved stone markers (stelae or cippi), often bearing inscriptions and/or iconography which have been interpreted by some researchers as evoking infant sacrifice (Stager 1982; Stager & Wolff 1984; Gras et al. 1989; Brown 1991) (Figure 1).

With the possible exception of Amathus in Cyprus (Christou 1998), all Tophets so far identified are located in the western Mediterranean, in areas subject to the direct influence of Phoenician Carthage (Figure 2). No Tophets have been found in the Phoenician homeland along the Levantine coast, the region where, based on the Biblical references to 'infants being passed into the fire' (2 Kings 23: 10; cf. de Vaux 1964; Lipinski 1988), Phoenician infant sacrifice is deemed to have originated.

Significance of age profiles

To demonstrate infant sacrifice archaeologically, it is necessary to show that the age profile in the burials differs from that expected from normal mortality in the period. Osteological investigations have shown that most of the cremated infants at Carthage and other Tophets were less than six months old (Gejvall 1949; Richard 1961; Fedele & Foster 1988; Schwartz et al. 2010) but they differ in their estimations of age distribution within this six-month period. Villenet (1891) quoted in Fedele & Foster (1988), identified 550 neonates from the Tophet at Nora, dating from the seventh to fourth/third century BC. Richard (1961) examined cremated infant remains from the Tophets at Sousse (Hadrumetum) and Carthage and found that only some 5% of the infants from these Tophets were foetal as opposed to the c. 60% expected in the case of natural, perinatal mortality. Both he and Gejvall (1949), who examined an additional sample of Carthage Tophet infants, wrote that their age distribution differed from that expected for natural death and so indicated infant sacrifice. …

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