Bones, Teeth, and Estimating Age of Perinates: Carthaginian Infant Sacrifice Revisited

By Schwartz, J. H.; Houghton, F. D. et al. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Bones, Teeth, and Estimating Age of Perinates: Carthaginian Infant Sacrifice Revisited


Schwartz, J. H., Houghton, F. D., Bondioli, L., Macchiarelli, R., Antiquity


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Introduction

The history of Punic Carthage is shrouded in fantastic imagery, but not solely because Queen Dido secured the land upon which she founded it with strips of ox hide (eighth or seventh century BC) (Harden 1963). A burial area at the city's periphery, containing the cremated remains of very young humans and animals (Harden 1963), and initially dubbed the 'sanctuary of Tanit' (Poinssot & Lantier 1923), became known as the 'Tophet', in reference to a site of human sacrifice mentioned in the Old Testament (Harden 1963; Moscati 1965, 1987; Benichou-Safar 1981; Stager & Wolff 1984). In developments of this view, the cemetery has been claimed to be devoted not only to sacrificed animals, but also to large numbers of sacrificed human infants (Lapeyre & Pellegrin 1942; Mosca 1975; Stager 1980; Stager & Wolff 1984; Brown 1991; Stager & Greene 2000, 2007; Smith et al. 2011). This interpretation is based primarily on accepting as accurate a small number of historical accounts of such behaviour (Diodorus, Kleitarchos, Plutarch and Tertullian, of which only the former two may be eye-witnesses), as well as on the interpretation of inscriptions on stelae especially of the consonants talk as meaning 'sacrifice' rather than 'Molech' or 'god' (ibid.).

An alternative hypothesis posits that Tophets were burial grounds for the very young, regardless of cause of death (Benichou-Safar 1981; Simonetti 1983; Moscati 1987; Fedele & Foster 1988; Agelarakis et al. 1998; Bartoloni 2006; Conte 2007; Fantar 2007). This interpretation is based on analyses suggesting the presence of human prenates and takes the following factors into consideration: an expectedly high infant mortality, the absence of infants and young children in the centrally located, cross-generationally representative cemeteries in which remains were not cremated, the youth of Tophet humans being consistent with a society that does not recognise individuals as 'persons' until a certain age, human cremations typically presented (postmortem) as offerings to the gods, and the likelihood that the 'reports' of Diodorus et al. of Carthaginian infant sacrifice were at best exaggerations and at worst anti-Carthage propaganda.

Our analysis

In the 1970s, UNESCO sponsored a multinational 'save Carthage' archaeological campaign, during which the director of one of two US-based teams, L.E. Stager, invited JHS to oversee recovery and analysis of the Tophet remains. From 348 urns JHS removed sediment, charred fragments of olive branches, cremated bone, amulets, beads, and other small objects, as well as clay stoppers (Schwartz 1993). Bones and teeth recovered from the same urn, whether human or animal (usually kid or lamb), spanned a spectrum of colour, from light brown lacking visible signs of heat exposure to charred, blue, and sometimes the white of complete calcination. Reconstructions of long bones and partial crania often united fragments of different colour. Since funerary pyres likely consisted of small to medium-sized olive branches, uneven burning of bones and teeth could result from a body placed on a non-uniform fire, dissociated body parts falling into spaces between branches and thus different heat domains, and parts of the same bone that either burst apart and/or broke as the fire tender prodded the fire to keep it alive and ended up in different places in the pyre (Gejvall 1969; McKinley 1989, 1994).

Analysis of the human remains from the 348 urns indicated the existence of 540 individuals (Schwartz et al. 2010). Dental remains--mostly undamaged, unerupted, variably developed crowns--were present in every human-bearing urn (Schwartz et al. 2010: tab. S2). Teeth are less susceptible to shrinkage and plastic deformation than long bones because they contain less organic material (~1% versus ~20%) and, while unerupted, are buffered from heat by surrounding hard and soft tissue (Gejvall 1969; McKinley 1994; Hillson 1996; Gatto 2003).

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